Archive for August, 2010

A real-life parable, drawn from the dusty streets of western Pennsylvania in a moment of vulnerable honesty, asks the question: is lack a bad thing? The need for others in order to be complete oneself, is this an ethical liability? If not, why? And how does a sense of one’s deficiency become problematic? The Christian Faith, specifically as it is a Trinitarian Faith, establishes an order of life among God’s image bearers in which lack is not necessarily ethically liable, and yet certainly can become so. How? The dynamics of marriage, as well as of life in the Church more generally, pivots in large measure upon that single question. We begin our meditation on the  wonder of  complementarity with a living parable.

Herman Melville once said that “it is impossible to talk or to write without apparently throwing oneself helplessly open.” Communication includes an inevitable vulnerability, an exposure not always welcome, and Melville, an author, would presumably identify written communication as the apex of that truth. Writing does lay the soul bare, so to speak, and it must for this author today. Not long ago I did what must seem a strange thing. At least it seems that way to me. I was a driver in a bit of a hurry, but I wanted a longer red light.

Lost and Lacking

My breathing was short and my eyes darted everywhere at once. I’m sure there was a song playing on the radio but I didn’t hear it. My palms gripped the steering wheel and I glared at a red light hoping it would linger a few minutes more. No, I don’t enjoy sitting at red lights any more than the next driver. I was on my way to visit a member of our congregation, always a sober and thoughtful event, but I didn’t need a few extra moments to gather my thoughts. The truth is the visit was, in front of that red light at least, not on my mind.

I wasn’t ill. I did not have a stroke that day that affected my mobility. Neither was I concerned about my car’s performance, needing to listen to it idle to make sure I didn’t hear any mysterious clanging. No, the problem was quite different, and I wouldn’t know what to do with a clanging car in any case. The problem was me. I simply wasn’t sure where to go.

It will surprise some people who know me, I think, but I have an unusual difficulty with navigation, with my sense of direction when I’m driving. I understand that most people have some trouble with this from time to time, but what I’m talking about goes beyond the norm. It could be called chronic, in fact, since it is a regular part of my driving life, and it is occasionally debilitating. It’s not that I never know where I’m going, but my comfort level with road navigation extends only to the most well-worn paths of my regular commutes. I am at ease, for instance, when I need to drive to our congregation’s meeting place, to my main shops for groceries and household items (which are happily clustered together), and the like. Otherwise, I need to do what I suspect few drivers do: think through, and visualize, ahead of time, the drive I’m to make in order to persuade myself I remember how to find my destination.

People laugh when they see it, and for good reason: it’s comical. I’m asked to meet someone somewhere and, having agreed, I put the phone down and I stand there, mouth slightly open, eyes staring into nowhere, driving the route in my mind, forming a mental checklist of the turns and sights until I know I remember the way. If it’s a planned meeting, perhaps even one I have somewhat regularly, still I sometimes run verbally through the driving steps with my wife while she rolls her eyes in jovial disbelief. If you want to make me sweat ask me to drive downtown. But at least give me time to print off another set of directions from my laptop. Maybe they created in-car GPS systems just for me, but until I have one I keep Google Maps feeling very useful in the world.

It is a bit ridiculous, I know, and it’s embarrassing too. Yet it’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember. As a child I sat with my father for countless drives around Miami and always wondered how I’d get back home if I needed to. My dad sometimes saw that was going on and would ask me if I knew the way home, and then he’d react as any sane person would to my stumbling reply. Since leaving Miami I’ve moved a number of times for educational and vocational reasons. Up to Clearwater, FL, then to Philadelphia, then across the ocean to Edinburgh, back over the Atlantic to Orlando, back overseas to Cambridge, and then here to Pittsburgh. Each time I’ve arrived in a new city I’ve been quietly relieved to be in the unassailable and blameless position of the newcomer who can’t be expected to know where he is going. I’ve had extra reason for grace here in western PA, where even the locals complain about how confusing it is to drive in the area. But that grace period is dwindling now, and after three years the comforting cloak of being new is slipping off.

These days I am sometimes late to a meeting, but it’s not because I care little for punctuality. In fact I do. I understand that punctuality, whether for meetings, assignments, communications, requests, or any such expectation, is a matter of active love for my neighbor. I understand that it’s important as an expression of my determination to count others more important than myself. So I encourage punctuality in my home and, fail though I sometimes do, I try to keep up with it myself. When I teach my children that delayed obedience is disobedience, I see it as an implication of punctuality as a spiritual grace. So I’m not late because I don’t care much for such things. I’m late, almost always, because I took a wrong turn and got lost. Again. And it’s frustrating.

I’ve realized I only learn a route if I determine to memorize every turn and as many visual markers as I can, and yet even then what I learn is the route and visuals, not a real sense of direction. I can often find a spot on my own only if I can reach a vein of my ordinary route there. If I need to find my way to my destination from a different starting point, I freeze, and often I add many miles to my journey just to ensure I know where I am. I know how to get from my house to my children’s school, and I (usually) know how to get from my house to the Sharp Edge Creekhouse, a favorite meeting place. But if you want me to drive from the school to Sharp Edge, that’s fine, just give me a few minutes to work on it.

Because it’s laughable, it’s humiliating and always has been. That’s something I’ve learned, and am still learning, to accept. I don’t have this kind of difficulty in other areas of life, and that frustrates me. Friends who find out often remind me that even Einstein allegedly had trouble tying his shoes. I gently remind them, however, that I have no trouble tying my shoes and, more to the point, I’m no Einstein. Yet it’s true that I’d be far more comfortable discussing the relevance of recent studies in Johannine theology to the anhypostatic/enhypostatic distinction than I would be directing someone to our church’s meeting place from where they live.

Different Ways of Being Lost

My navigational weakness – clearly a natural, psychological quiddity of some sort – is only part of the picture, however. A poor sense of direction was not the only reason for wishing the traffic light would stay red that day. Importantly, I was alone in the car, which meant my wife was not there to remind me where to turn next. My weakness, you see, is one of her strengths. She would probably say it’s too much to call it a strength, since she simply is able to do what “normal” people can do. Okay, maybe she wouldn’t call me abnormal (she’s too kind) but that would be the gist of it. And maybe she’s right. But her ability to navigate is something I depend on, given my great weakness.

Of course, acknowledging this dynamic is not the most natural thing in the world for me to do. In other contexts of life I am quite content not to be led around like a child, thank you very much, and I mentioned already that this is embarrassing. Furthermore, the problem isn’t consistent: it happens to be the case that I often do know where I am going and what turn to make because something has “clicked.” So when my wife gently says from her seat, “you turn left here,” it’s hard sometimes to swallow the “I know,” since the truth is I frequently do not know, and it would be foolish to create hesitancy on her part.

This raises the question of lack: is it an ethical liability? Swallowing the unnecessary piece of direction is humiliating, but it’s a reminder of my sinful pride and of a way that my wife complements me. What does that mean? My lack is a natural, mental difficulty of some kind that makes it difficult for me to navigate successfully. That lack is not necessarily an ethical liability. It becomes one, however, when I proudly refuse either to acknowledge it as a lack or to be helped by my wife. That kind of obstinacy is an altogether different matter from being lost on the highway. The lack isn’t the problem, but the lack is the context for either pride or humility, and that is where it may become a problem. To see this, we turn to Moses and to his God.

(Next: What the Scriptures teach about liable and nonliable lack. The Trinity. Christ. The Church. Marriage.)

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As promised many moons ago, here we are beginning a series of thoughts on nonsense. More specifically, we’re interested in the Swiss-cheese kind of hole-iness of arguments and thinking used by all types of people at their most passionate, and, unfortunately, even at their most dispassionate. Our guide is the wonderful little book by Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language.

Gula’s opening chapter on “everyday nonsense” asks the probing question, “Are men and women by nature hopelessly muddled creatures?” He answers, “By nature, yes. Muddled, yes. Hopelessly, no.” For Gula, hope in the face of the human tendency toward nonsense, it appears, is a matter of better training and more instruction in the practice of argument. More on that later.

My own interest in the structures of ideological communication, especially persuasion (or “argument”), goes beyond the formal structures to the inanity of exasperating obliviousness. In other words, I wonder not only about why and how bad arguments see the light (the airwaves?) of day; I wonder, too, about the cognitive processes at work in those who seem truly not to have a clue about the world, people, communication, etc.  at the most basic levels of personal interaction. While that’s not a topic of the book, recognizing pitfalls and “blind spots” in persuasive communication certainly is. And Gula recognizes one of those blind spots is attitudinal rather than theoretical: laziness. He notes, “Careful and clear thinking requires a certain rigor; it is a skill, and, like all skills, it requires training, practice, and vigilance.”

Definitely correct, and I particularly appreciate Gula’s recognition that his book helps not just the arguer but the arguee, that is, the listener.  Hence the value of the book for those who deal with the more generally, and not only the occasionally, obtuse. “It’s frustrating,” Gula writes, “to know in your heart that what you’ve just heard is nonsense but not to be able to pinpoint why it is nonsense. If you’ve ever found yourself in that position, this book should help. It identifies and itemizes the many different guises that erroneous thinking may assume, and it explains some of the reasons for erroneous thinking.”

Gula offers “general principles” (he does not want to call them “laws”) in the form of a list of patterns that characterize the ways people tend to respond, or as the case may be, react. Mostly they resonate with what we have each no doubt experienced but in each case they are complemented for the Christian with the nature of the Spirit’s work in the face of such obstinacy and obliviousness. For instance, Gula notes that people “tend to believe what they want to believe” and it’s often hard to get them out of that way of thinking. Yes, and the Spirit wonderfully opens our blind eyes and deaf ears to see and hear the truth of things, which alone gives us hope as communicators. Gula also notes that people “tend to generalize from a specific event,” which is to say they lose a sense of proportion in the way they relate specific events to the general patterns and truths, often working only along the lines that favor them. He also lists that people tend to “hear selectively,” hearing “only what they want to hear;” “are eager to rationalize”; sometimes cannot “distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant”; “are usually unwilling to explore thoroughly the ramifications of a topic” and “tend to oversimplify.” In a moment of utter candor, Gula states that people “often simply don’t know what they are talking about, especially in matters of general discussion. They rarely think carefully before they speak, but they allow their feelings, prejudices, biases, likes, dislikes, hopes, and frustrations to supersede careful thinking.”

Now, Gula is not, from any indication in the book at least, a Christian. Yet it is striking how Gula’s creation in the image of God is reflected in the decidedly moral nature of his list of communication and logical fallacies. He knows what ought to be but gives no theoretical, certainly no theological, justification for his expectation. Yet Gula recognizes, as we all must, that sound communication is not a matter of intellectual but of spiritual capacity: it’s a matter not of how smart one is but of the presence or absence of active love. It’s really as simple as that, which is not to say it is easy. Nonsense is ethical; in the hands of sinners it becomes a tool of destruction. And for that reason a Christian will recognize a different hope for the communicatively impaired. Because it is a matter of sin, hope comes not from more training and practice per se but ultimately from the Spirit, who may be pleased to use books such as this one as means to the glorious end of love indeed, which is love in deed, love in practice. Along that path Gula’s book is a helpful guide, helping Christian readers develop a holy impatience with loveless speech, particularly as it arises from our own hearts and flows from our own lips.

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The thoughts aren’t mine; they belong to Ben Myers and he shared them here. An excerpt from his little meditation:

“Theologians are people for whom the Christian faith is especially difficult, incomprehensible, infuriating. As a rule they are not especially talented or spiritually adept individuals. They are people whose minds have been hurt by God, and they are restlessly searching for – what? Healing perhaps, or catharsis? To expect so much from the study of theology would be futile or even dangerous. In any case there is no lack of opportunities for theological catharsis: often our worship services seem calculated to remove the difficulty of believing, to make God easy and accessible, more a cure than a wasting sickness. Perhaps then we should define theologians like this: They are people for whom even the Christian worship service does not provide adequate catharsis of the hurtfulness of God.

That is why, as a general rule, you should try to show kindness to theologians. Not because they are necessarily exemplary personalities. Not because they necessarily know what they’re talking about. Not because they are necessarily people of great faith. Instead, you should show them kindness because their faith is so weak and so vulnerable; because they are burdened by the difficulty of God; because they are driven to think about God the way some people are driven to drink. You should take care of your theologians the way you would care for the widow and the orphan. Jürgen Moltmann has somewhere remarked: “‘We are not theologians because we are particularly religious; we are theologians because in the face of this world we miss God.'”

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In my readings on loneliness of various sorts in relation to the communion of the saints, I can’t help but point out the penetrating observation by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic little book, Life Together (pp. 76-7):

“Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone. Because they cannot stand loneliness, they are driven to seek the company of other people. There are Christians, too, who cannot endure being alone, who have had some bad experiences with themselves, who hope they will gain some help in association with others. They are generally disappointed. Then they blame the fellowship for what is really their own fault. The Christian community is not a spiritual sanatorium. The person who comes into a fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear. He is really not seeking community at all, but only distraction which will allow him to forget his loneliness for a brief time, the very alienation that creates the deadly isolation of man. The disintegration of communication and all genuine experience, and finally resignation and spiritual death are the result of such attempts to find a cure.”

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“I shall esteem it better to seek for substantial utility than temporary amusement; for if we fail of being useful, for want of being sufficiently popular, we remain at least respectable: but if we are unsuccessful in our attempts to amuse, we immediately appear trifling and contemptible.”

Thomas Young, introduction to A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts, 1807, quoted in Andrew Robinson, The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young, The Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, Among Other Feats of Genius (New York: Pi Press, 2006), 85.

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I have been thinking recently of the many novels, stories, and films that have as their theme a process of discovery that the world or reality is not what it first appeared to be. Ripley’s “Believe it or Not!” famously exploited our quiet acknowledgment that we allow mild challenges to our perceptions of the world (and, incidentally, believe in monsters – but we leave that for another time), yet the more compelling narratives of life in the world involve a forced change much deeper than accepting that a man can have three arms. The  classic protagonist’s crisis, a crisis of faith that forces him out of his self-confidence and into another framework for intelligibility, ordinarily involves profound anguish, pain, and sorrow. Why is that? To the extent that repentance over sin is a matter of the death of pride in one’s own view of things and the new birth of humble confidence in Another’s depiction of those same things, one finds the same existential crisis in the ministry of the Gospel. It’s painful not because we see ourselves moving from blindness to sight, but because we first need to be persuaded that what we thought we saw we saw wrongly, that reality is not what we thought it was. Can there be any more painful a blow to our pride than to swallow the truth that our view of the world has always been skewed? Not merely a turn from blindness to sight but a new kind of seeing: this is the life of faith. This, in turn, brings us again to reconsider what sin is. Bavinck helps us:

“The most fearful misery of sin consists not therein, that we are blind, but it consists in this: that we, being blind, nevertheless imagine that we see. Sin is guilt and pollution and shame, but above that, also foolishness and ignorance.”

Herman Bavinck, The Sacrifice of Praise: Meditations Before and After Receiving Access to the Table of the Lord, trans. John Dolfin, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Louis Kregel, 1922), 100. (HT: In Thy Light)

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