The joys and sorrows of neverending discussion

One of the bloggers I follow is Jeff Atwood, because he’s pretty good on all things programming, and lately I’ve been a bit of a programmer. But in this old post he just linked to on Twitter, the programming part is only incidental to the wisdom he offers. I offer it as is (emphasis in original), leaving it as an exercise to the reader to substitute something more relevant for “programming”—perhaps parenting, or discipleship, or just living life properly.

But it is possible to go too far in the other direction, too. It’s much rarer, because it bucks the natural introversion of most software developers, but it does happen. Take me, for example. Sometimes I worry that I spend more time talking about programming than actually programming.

At the point when I spend all my time talking about programming, and very little of my time programming, my worst fear has been realized: I’ve become a pundit. The last thing the world needs is more pundits. Pundits only add ephemeral commentary to the world instead of anything concrete and real. They don’t materially participate in the construction of any lasting artifacts; instead, they passively observe other people’s work and offer a neverending babbling brook of opinions, criticism, and witty turns of phrase. It’s pathetic. […]

It’s helpful to discuss features, but sometimes the value of a feature is inversely proportional to how much it has been discussed. Our job as software developers is to deliver features and solve business problems, not to generate neverending discussion. Ultimately, As Marc Andreessen notes, we will be judged by what we – and our code – have done, not the meta-discussion that went on around it.

Not only is it not our job in life to generate neverending discussion, I think we need to view neverending discussion as a symptom that something is wrong. Discussions needs to end as soon as they cease being helpful, and if a particular discussion isn’t accompanied by tangible benefits then it isn’t one that should have ever existed.

“I thought we were better than that”

I have a longstanding tradition of not discussing events of the day on this blog. I will be breaking with that tradition for the duration of this post. As partial atonement, I will do my best to keep it brief. All three items involve the response of the church to a current event.

The first is the release of the Planned Parenthood videos. The initial response from the Christian community was gleeful—finally, the world will wake up to what abortion mills are doing!—followed by a baffled and crushing disappointment—where’s the outrage?

I have some hope that the disappointment will inspire us to face the facts. Our instincts tell us that normal, decent human beings should be outraged by these revelations. But the news has moved on, and not much has changed. So what went wrong? Did they not hear? Do they need to hear it again? Do we not live amongst normal, decent human beings? Or are we mistaken in how we understand the situation? (I vote for the last.)

The second is the sudden awareness of mistreatment of blacks at the hands of the police. I am afraid that society at large is far ahead of the church in being brought up short by the constant stream of outrageous revelations. But I do have some hope, precisely because the church has been so feeble and mealy-mouthed in its response. I think as a community we simply don’t know what to say, that our understanding of the situation has failed us, and for once we haven’t yielded (completely, anyway) to the temptation to retreat into some pious claptrap about how the real problem is that we’re all sinners, or whatever. Perhaps in the partial silence we’ll find the strength to do some thinking.

The third event is the hacking of the Ashley Madison website, which revealed that when it comes to sexual purity many Christians, pastors and teachers and laymen, celebrities and little-known, talk a far better game than they live. The response I’ve seen from the community so far is exactly the sort of response the commumity hoped the Planned Parenthood videos would evoke but didn’t—shocked, stunned disbelief. An unbelieving observer who noticed both would have to laugh at the irony. Meanwhile, I take heart from the fact that folks were at least shocked, stunned, and disbelieving. At least the standard which was violated turns out to not be cynically hypocritical—we really did believe our men were better than that.

How could the church have failed so miserably in this third area? I have my own answer, and I think it applies to the first two situations as well. Unfortunately, I don’t think most people will find it very helpful.

It is this: we choose to put our faith in the rules, rather than in what the rules point to. We require righteousness, but don’t train people in righteousness. When those in the community fail to meet the standard, our response is: didn’t you hear me the first time? Here, let me tell you again, slower and louder and in a very stern voice. Surely you didn’t understand me before, and once you do you will naturally do what I tell you is right. Just stop doing what is wrong. That’s all it takes.

We’ve told our men to be pure, and they’ve failed to be pure. We’ve told ourselves that ours must become a colorblind society, and blacks suffer disproportionately at the hands of police. We’ve told ourselves that good people view life as precious, and good people are not outraged by events where life is treated as a commodity and (in)convenience. None of this excuses the behavior of the people involved. But perhaps we should re-examine our faith in the power of our rules and standards.

We thought we could save the world (and ourselves considerable effort) by codifying the Christian worldview and then imposing it on everyone, Christian or not. Instead we found that not only did the unbelieving world reject it, believers began substituting the code for character—rather than exemplifying a way of life as a result of long years of training, they substitute a promise to adhere to the code, without regard to whether they are constitutionally (or situationally) equipped to fulfill that promise.

Based on my own experience, I believe that everyday people can train themselves to meet the Christian standard—eventually, and imperfectly, but with increasing success as a result of their efforts. Unfortunately, these days that almost certainly means self-training, with little or no assistance or guidance available. Teachers are all too pleased to expound the standard, and we’re all too eager to judge one another against it. But there’s precious little available to train you in how to meet that standard.

Ivan Illich

Still immersed in reading, but I’ll poke my head up long enough to mention one particular writer who is new to me, and to offer some links to his work.

I was aware of Ivan Illich, but only vaguely. I knew he had written a book called Deschooling Society, and was often mentioned along with people like John Holt, Raymond Moore, and John Taylor Gatto, all known for training a gimlet eye on the idea of institutional education. And I once had a copy of Tools for Conviviality on my shelf, having a long-standing interest in community and being intrigued by the idea implied in the title, that there were tools conducive to living together—but I never even opened it, and it is long gone. Aside from that, I knew nothing, not even that he was a Christian, much less a Roman Catholic priest.

The impetus for my current bout of reading was the series of three essays by Alan Jacobs mentioned in my previous blog post. I wanted to know more about Charles Taylor’s thinking on the origins of modernity, but a little bit of research suggested that A Secular Age, his masterwork, is a supremely difficult book, not to mention hideously expensive. But I remembered that James K.A. Smith had written a sort of guidebook to A Secular Age, called How (Not) to be Secular, and so I decided to start there. It’s been very helpful. And I wanted to read the two Taylor essays which Jacobs claims are vital, so I bought Taylor’s collection Dilemmas and Connections, and also the book of transcribed Illich conversations to which Taylor contributed the introduction, Rivers North of the Future.

For the record, Taylor is actually a clear and straightforward writer, with a peculiar but maybe necessary habit of neologizing. I say “maybe necessary” because he always gives his inventions detailed definitions and uses them precisely as he fits them together to build his explanations. Whether or not adequate words already existed, his new ones are so distinctive that they serve as a constant reminder to the reader that they denote key concepts. In any case, I actually find Taylor’s writing clearer than Smith’s summarizing—but Smith provides the sketchy overview I need but don’t have time to construct for myself from Taylor’s massive and complex book.

But this is about Illich. I read Taylor’s introduction to Rivers North of the Future, and was surprised to find Taylor saying that in these conversations he had discovered a key concept for structuring his then-ongoing research into the sources of secular thinking—namely, that modernity is not opposed to Christendom but in fact its full flowering, an inevitable perversion of the Gospel. That inspired me to dive into the conversations right away!

The conversations occurred near the end of Illich’s life and were intended as a summary of his thinking, with particular attention paid to a unifying idea that had underpinned his various writings but never been addressed explicitly in them. The Latin expression he uses to capture it is perversio optimi quae est pessima, or “the corruption of the best is the worst.” Shakespeare says it this way in Sonnet 94: “For sweetest things turn sour by their deeds / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Others have detected this in the arc from the advent of the Gospel to the early church to Constantine to Christendom to the Reformation to the Enlightenment to modernity to post-modernity. But usually the story is told as things ticking along pretty well until some outside force came along and knocked the project off the track—and if we could only set it back on the track, things would be good again. Illich (and Taylor) locate the source of perversion internally, and much more deeply in the project—at one point Illich despairs that it may actually be inherent, an unavoidable consequence—so deep that it is pointless to think about fixing it.

Illich studied several matters that are dear to me, and I mean studied—his original work focused on the history of the 12th century, where he saw the direction of Christendom change for the worse in several fundamental ways, but he was widely read—and I appreciate that he can back up in detail conclusions I’d reached tentatively and mostly intuitively. Some of his claims:

  • Things went badly wrong when we elected to take the Christian view and codify it, turning it from a spontaneous response to our neighbor into a standard of behavior which could be imposed and enforced (what he calls the “criminalization of sin”).

  • In the name of “development” modernity has tyrannized inhabitants of the pre-modern world by stealing the ability to subsist, substituting needs that can only be satisfied by participating in the system (Illich worked extensively among Mexican peasants).

  • Doctors had no concept of disease until the mid-19th century. Before then their role was to help people get their body back into balance, to facilitate nature’s working, and to help people endure whatever suffering that might entail. Now bodies are no more than collections of mechanisms which doctors are charged with “fixing.”

  • Our current understanding of “tool” is not fundamental but came into existence in the 12th century, and the change in thinking was critical to the development of modernity. Now there is another sea change—tools have been replaced by systems, which include the operator—and this change in thinking will have equally profound effects.

  • The parable of the good samaritan encapsulates the Gospel, i.e. the new thing that Jesus made possible. Before Jesus your neighbors were chosen for you, by locale or ethnicity. Jesus freed us to choose our neighbors, to choose them in the moment, and to encounter Him in the other.

  • Churches, schools, hospitals, political systems, and other such institutions should be viewed as rituals, the purpose and effect of which is to make people believe in the necessity and goodness of what the ritual is supposed to achieve.

Well, there’s a lot more—my copy of the book is heavily highlighted. Still, I’m not sure I can recommend the book as a starting place. If you’re not initially sympathetic to Illich’s view on a particular matter, justification for the view has to be found elsewhere in his work. Since I’d long ago come around to his general way of thinking, I found the reflection Illich does here both helpful and delightful. But someone who is skeptical of a particular claim will need to go to the source of it.

Fortunately, much of Illich’s writing is available for free online. Look here for some core pieces, including his books Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality. And this site has collected together various occasional pieces by Illich.

Looking for a different way to write, ctd.

You’ll be much better served by reading this series of three posts by Alan Jacobs than my reflections on them, so in case you have to choose I’ll link them up front:

Jacobs examines the modern addiction to a certain sort of “philosophical hubris, to the idea that arguments can be produced that will defeat the opposition once and for all.” And its corollary, that disagreement must be destroyed rather than tolerated. He contrasts this to Bernard Williams’ claim that disagreement is not only tolerable but valuable:

The context here is, broadly speaking, ethics—how people should live—and Williams thinks that ethical questions are immensely complex, so that disagreement about them is “merely to be expected.” Indeed, any attempt to shut down disagreement on such matters will be an impoverishment of thought, and perhaps of life itself.

I am definitely on the side of Willams (and Jacobs). The only things I know about life that are useful and satisfying arose in some way from a dissent from conventional wisdom, whether the dissenter was (occasionally) me or (usually) someone else, and whether I ended up rejecting the conventional wisdom or, due to a deeper examination of it, embracing it. Jacobs again:

The ancient idea of the philosopher as gadfly arises from the awareness that a person can serve society not only by being correct but also, and in a distinct way, simply by being different—by challenging conventional wisdom and received beliefs.

I remember very clearly the moment I woke up to this truth. It was during the five-year stretch when some friends and I met monthly to discuss readings selected by the Great Books Foundation. That month’s reading was Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. I’d never read Freud before, and knew little about his thinking beyond what the average person assumes he knows. But this short book addressed a cultural topic I knew something about, and as I read through it a second time I realized: I not only don’t agree with this, but I have substantial objections to his claims which I can back up.

Now, the point is not that I was actually in a position to refute Freud, but only that for the first time I felt I could profitably engage a thinker of Freud’s stature. I learned that day to carefully consider a position I was inclined to disagree with, identify the strengths and weaknesses of the presentation, challenge it at some points with my own thinking, and walk away edified but unpersuaded.

Since then I’ve treasured and even sought out opportunities to amiably disagree with folks who’ve given their own positions enough thought to present them intelligently. The potential for doing this on the internet is staggering—butif it was ever a possibility it seems to not be one now. As Jacobs points out in his second post:

Occasionally Americans debate the correctness of beliefs and practices — political, moral, social. But not very often. Most Americans, or so one would judge from social media anyway, are Bulverists: they already know who is right and who isn’t, so all they need to debate is why the people who get things wrong — so, so wrong — do so.

Jacobs goes on to observe that lately we have moved on from wallowing unreflectively in our received beliefs to demanding justice be exacted on those who believe differently, what he calls “disciplinary bulverism.” The examples he gives are all too familiar, so I’ll leave you to read that post without further commenting on it.

Not only can I not relate to this attitude, I can’t even find a suitable pathway into the fray. Several times in my life I have tentatively embraced a way of life—not with wholehearted before-the-fact acceptance, but in the spirit of exploration. There are some things you can’t evaluate properly by observing them from a distance, you need to be up close. On the other hand, plunging in runs the risk of blinding you to what is weak or just plain wrong about the approach. When you are fully invested, it is tempting to rationalize those away for the sake of protecting your investment.

The most recent example for us was farming. We farmed for seven years without becoming farmers. And that was intentional—the time was spent looking for a way to embrace the life fully, to find a balance between the need for income, the needs of children growing into adulthood, and the need to live with integrity. There are many possible ways to strike the balance—we know several who have done it, no two alike—but we weren’t able to piece one together out of the hand we’ve been dealt, our history and inclinations and skills and beliefs. So it ended up being a good and valuable experience that we also needed to walk away from.

Similarly with writing. I’ve written for 25 years now, in letters and emails and newsgroup exchanges and blog posts and blog comments. And I still don’t consider myself a writer—or, more accurately, I haven’t committed myself to a particular approach to writing. I continue to write things down because to me it is an integral part of self-examination, something I have long been committed to. But making that writing public has always been experimental, and each experiment has left me mostly disappointed. I try approaches that others use to achieve their own goals, approaches that have at least some potential for helping me realize mine. I am mostly frustrated by the results.

But I’m also OK with it. Inability to make progress towards a goal is also an opportunity to re-evaluate the goal itself. I’ve been unable to engage others in fruitful discussion—but is that so vital? Where I see others so engaged, the discussion itself is rarely fruitful. And although a clash of viewpoints can sometimes be enlightening, if done in good faith and with mutual respect, the truth is that I am far more edified when someone has the courage to give a full-orbed account of their own thinking, without an eye to defending it or using it to club opponents into submission.

So I’m thinking now of focusing more on getting my thinking recorded and less on shaping it into a consumable bit of writing ready to be floated out into the stream. I’ve created a wiki, using the platform that runs Wikipedia, and am proceeding to fill it up with my own notes. The content of this blog (at least the stuff worth keeping) will eventually be recreated there, expanded and annotated and with links to related material. If that continues to look promising, I will make it public. Meanwhile, this blog will continue to exist in its current form, both as a historical record and a place where I can post new bits and pieces created for the wiki as seems appropriate.

Jacobs’s third post in the series, Code Fetishists and Normolaters, presents a good example of why I need to find another vehicle for my writing/thinking. It highlights some intriguing ideas from the philosopher Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age—intriguing enough to get me to order two of the books mentioned in the post, plus James K.A. Smith’s introduction to Taylor’s thinking, and to read several of the articles mentioned—as well as articles mentioned in those articles! In the past I would have written a longer post about this particular post, quoting excerpts and adding my own observations, perhaps going off on a tangent or two, but all as a fairly immediate reaction to what Jacobs wrote. Now I think it would be better to use the post as an opportunity for extended study, creating a written piece which I can revisit and expand and rearrange as I follow the trains of thought that the original blog post inspired. We’ll see if that works!

Meanwhile, Taylor’s intriguing idea is that for perhaps 800 years now we’ve endured a tension between “code fetishists” and antinomians, between those who believe “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code” (a code which can then be enforced), and those who reject any imposition of such a code. Jacobs writes:

I think the key lesson to be drawn from Taylor’s account is that code fetishism produces antinomianism: antinomians are people who get frustrated by the code fetishists’ relentless policing and disciplining of disagreement—which the fetishists do because they are trying to build a more just society and think that codification and enforcement of rules is the only way to do it—and believe that a simply rejection of rules is the only way to resist. That is, both sides agree that morality is a matter of rules; but one side thinks that since rules require elaboration and enforcement, and other people are the ones elaborating and enforcing them, they would prefer what they see as the only alternative, a rule-rejecting, morally minimal commitment to freedom.

And then he raises this possibility:

But what if this is a false dichotomy? What if the code fetishists and antinomians are both wrong, and wrong for the same reason: because they have unwittingly accepted the false idea that “the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code”? What if rule-following doesn’t produce justice, and the antinomians have an inadequate conception of freedom?

I think this is right, and I agree with many (but not all) of the reasons that Jacobs gives for thinking this. And it fits with my growing understanding of God’s economy, of goodness as the ordering principle of creation, a principle that is best embraced but is not imposed. But I’m in no position right now to present my own thinking, since it will surely be informed and shaped by what Jacobs has inspired me to read. So again, I need a way of planting a stake, identifying a piece of ground that needs to be revisited and elaborated in due time.

Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature

This essay is long but worth a read. The first half cuts through all the pious nonsense one hears about why this is bad, as exemplified in the opening paragraphs:

Go to just about any English department at any university, gather round the coffee pot, and listen to what one of my colleagues calls the Great Kvetch. It is perfectly summarized by the opening sentence of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s recent book: “We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance.” She is not speaking of looming environmental disaster or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. You see, those are threats we can discern. The danger Nussbaum is highlighting “goes largely unnoticed, like a cancer; a crisis that is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government.”

When a writer invokes the insidious progress of a cancer, you know she hopes to forestall the objection that there is little visible evidence to support her argument. What is this cancer threatening democracy and the world? Declining enrollments in literature courses. Her book is titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

Following this the writer looks at several actual reasons that students avoid literature, giving them their due. The short version is this: students see no benefits to reading literature that can’t be obtained in other, easier ways, and the professors who moan about it don’t bother to make those benefits available.

What makes this essay worthwhile is the second half, where the writer very clearly spells out the benefits:

Many disciplines can teach that we ought to empathize with others. But these disciplines do not involve actual practice in empathy. Great literature does, and in that respect its study remains unique among university-taught subjects. […]

It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else. The great realist novelists, from Jane Austen on, developed a technique for letting readers eavesdrop on the very process of a character’s thoughts and feelings as they are experienced. Readers watch heroes and heroines in the never-ending process of justifying themselves, deceiving themselves, arguing with themselves. That is something you cannot watch in real life, where we see others only from the outside and have to infer inner states from their behavior. But we live with Anna Karenina from within for hundreds of pages, and so we get the feel of what it is to be her. And we also learn what it is like to be each of the people with whom she interacts. In a quarrel, we experience from within what each person is perceiving and thinking. How misunderstandings or unintentional insults happen becomes clear. This is a form of novelistic wisdom taught by nothing else quite so well.

And:

We all live in a prison house of self. We naturally see the world from our own perspective and see our own point of view as obvious and, if we are not careful, as the only possible one. I have never heard anyone say: “Yes, you only see things from my point of view. Why don’t you consider your own for a change?” The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently. […]

We live in a world in which we more and more frequently encounter other cultures. That is part of what globalization means. And yet we are often baffled by them. Americans have the habit of assuming that everyone, deep down, wants to be just like us. It simply isn’t so, and I assure you that others assume that deep down we want to be just like them. When Russians listen to our leaders express their views about what people really want and how nations ought to behave, they think our leaders must be lying, because no one could actually think that way. They are as deeply convinced of the obvious correctness of their perceptions as we are of ours, and so they cannot imagine that others can sincerely perceive things differently.

But great literature allows one to think and feel from within how other cultures think and feel. The greater the premium on understanding other cultures in their own terms, the more the study of literature matters.

And, most important to me:

Students will acquire the skill to inhabit the author’s world. Her perspective becomes one with which they are intimate, and which, when their own way of thinking leads them to a dead end, they can temporarily adopt to see if it might help. Novelistic empathy gives them a diversity of ways of thinking and feeling. They can escape from the prison house of self.

I think this last is true of any bit of writing, fiction or nonfiction. When we read, we see things through another’s eyes. I’ve understood for a long time how vital it is to continually broaden my perspective, to extend my empathy, and I’ve also become ever more aware of how much the pursuit has blessed me. Reading has played a central role in that, since writings are the single best source of relevant information. But until reading this essay I hadn’t thought much about the writer’s role in this, the eyes he or she offers the reader. I’ve benefited from them, but unawares. Thanks, authors!

Scattered thoughts on thinking and writing

I’ve often said—usually to myself, occasionally to others—that not much makes me happier than having my kids carefully consider a situation, and then respond differently than I would. My goal is not to teach them what to think, or even how to think, but to persuade them that thinking is vital.

Of course I’ve taught them my own thinking over the years, both conclusions and techniques. But that is only scaffolding to be used as they come into their own as thinkers. I expect them to discard whatever doesn’t meet the standards they eventually develop. And when I see that happen, it is evidence that I did what I set out to do.

Back when we sold homeschooling materials, I wanted to write a set of short study guides for broad topics—economics, history, philosophy, mathematics, theology, and so on. These were not to be comprehensive but only starting points, a very broad overview of the issues together with a bibliography of good introductory books. The hope was that the overview would equip the reader to pick and choose intelligently from the list of books so as to gain a very broad understanding of the topic, its outline and primary issues and relevance to the rest of life. And for those who wanted to explore further, the books on the list would be proper jumping-off points.

This is how I go about familiarizing myself with a topic—not always by starting with an introductory book, but almost always by chasing down citations in whatever I happen to be reading. If the topic is new to me, my Kindle will begin to fill with free or library-provided books, and the mailman delivers a steady stream of four dollar used books I find through AbeBooks. I get to them right away, or I get to them later, but I get to them. (We moved to the farm in 2005 largely because of Joel Salatin’s writings, and those books had sat on my shelf for four years before I read them.)

The usefulness of citations doesn’t always correlate with their source. I have two writers in particular who are precious to me, even though I disagree with and even dislike most of their own thinking, because the works they cite are always profitable. If they recommend a book or essay on a topic that interests me, I will add it to my own reading list because I know they are discerning readers.

I needed a name for my study guide series, and settled on How to Think About …. But I wouldn’t use such a name today, and even then I was uneasy about it because of its prescriptive flavor. Telling people what to think is pretty bad, but telling them how to think is worse since it will narrow their range of perception even further. And it wasn’t what I meant anyway.

More accurate would have been How I Think About … or A Way of Thinking About …. Or, these days, just A Way of … (seeing, reading, handling money, interacting with others, relating to God’s economy, etc.), since thinking is only a part of it, and not the most important one. All I hope to do in my writing, whatever the venue, is to describe my own understanding of a topic in the hope that others might benefit in some way from a different perspective. And I think it’s important to restrict myself to describing understandings that I have lived out in some way for some length of time. In essence, I want to present myself as an example—not necessarily one to be followed, but for the reader’s consideration.

In her essay Why I Write, Joan Didion writes, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

I’m sympathetic to that. I’ve read and studied, thought and considered and pondered for all my adult life, but when I began trying to write down my thoughts the quality of my thinking (and understanding) improved markedly. In the beginning it was a method of clearing out a lot of mental rubbish. Many things I thought I knew didn’t stand up to the test of being articulated, and I learned to jettison them, initially with pain but eventually with pleasure. Other things—not nearly as many—I rethought, researched further, and eventually beat into a shape that could be put into words. Often that process would highlight gaps I hadn’t noticed, and I learned to view this as an opportunity to deepen, solidify, or sometimes change my thinking on this and related topics.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.” I second this wholeheartedly. The most important things I learn tend to come to me as crystal clear statements, and although I credit the skill of the writer I also think a sound thought will lend itself to simple and direct presentation. So if I’m writing and the words aren’t flowing, I’m more inclined to revisit my understanding of the matter than to play with the wording.

Although I’ve found it helpful to set down my thoughts in writing for public consumption—a regime that forces me to actually do the work required for quality thinking, rather than just telling myself I’ve done it—it hasn’t led to the sort of conversations I hoped for.

A good part of this is because my interests have wandered so far afield that there isn’t a lot of common ground between me and most people on which a conversation can be built. I don’t usually have the time or energy to lay the needed groundwork, and I don’t expect a reader to wade through endless preliminaries just so we can converse.

But I also have a growing awareness—resignation, maybe—that those who might be willing to engage on these subjects also view public discussion differently, as either confrontation or commiseration. I would prefer to explain rather than defend myself, and to closely question the explanations of others without appearing provocative. Sometimes I manage this in email exchanges, but so far not in public.

When I’m thinking through a problematic issue I like to examine all my assumptions, while holding them as lightly as possible. This is because I rarely know in the beginning where the source of the problem lies, and I don’t want to skew my ponderings by assuming the source is probably here or probably not there. I’ve been surprised too many times to trust my initial instincts.

I haven’t yet figured out how to do this in public writing. The best I have managed is to summarize my thinking once it is settled, highlighting the assumptions which others aren’t likely to share. And this doesn’t work very well with issues where the reader is heavily invested in his own different assumptions.

I’ve tried to engage a Christian academic writer about the challenge that self published ebooks present to the traditional publishing model. I’ve tried to engage one pastor about how many sermons a faithful parishioner needs to hear before they can be excused, a second on whether should be paid, a third on whether his flock actually took his exhortations seriously enough to act on them or even thought they were expected to. Even when the conversation began publicly I quickly moved it to a private setting, email or face to face, because the heat of the response surprised me. I had no vested position and was trying to learn more. The other had their identity tied up in the issue, and the surface content of the exchange didn’t seem to match up with fierceness used to defend the position.

When we “discuss” contentious topics, it seems to me we rarely discuss the topic itself. I haven’t been a member of a church for ten years and expect never to join another, based on reasoning I am happy to discuss. But I don’t think I’ve even mentioned this to someone who is a strong advocate of church membership, because their own reasoning appears flimsy and shallow to me, and doesn’t match up well with my understanding of the very deep issues raised by church membership. (I don’t mean by “match up” that we disagree on how the issues should be resolved, I mean that we don’t agree about what the issues are.)

I’ve heard people assert that it is legitimate, necessary, and even loving to question the salvation of someone who does not belong to a local church. This is a dire judgment to level on another, and I can’t imagine even entertaining such a possibility unless I’ve worked long and hard to be sure that no other, more generous interpretation is available. And yet when I look into explanations of the rationale behind church membership, the reasoning seems flimsy and shallow to me, and I suspect that the reasoners have worked backwards from the conclusion they wanted, gathering up all the bits and pieces that could possibly be called into service to support it.

Although I now take a dim view of church membership, the dimness is mostly practical. Historically the purported benefits have been far outweighed by its potential and actual abuse. When I hear of another abusive situation in an institutional church, I first ask myself: would this be a problem if no one was exercising authority over another? The answer is almost always: no.

And so I would genuinely like to engage a thoughtful advocate of church membership, simply to ask: what exactly are the benefits bestowed by membership that outweigh the abuse that is inevitably inflicted by imperfect authority figures? are these benefits somehow available only through the exercise of authority? or is authority simply a bottom line of the faith, not to be questioned but only to be enjoyed/endured? But I expect that such a conversation would quickly become something else—a challenge to the other’s authority—no matter what words were exchanged.

Have I mentioned same-sex marriage? Of course not! To me the topic appears to be out of bounds for discussion, no matter what your position. You may preach to the choir, or you may issue “gotcha” challenges to the opposition, but you are not encouraged in any way to revisit your thinking about marriage and how it fits into overall Kingdom living.

If you don’t believe that, try to entertain this thought: Should churches be in the business of marrying people? The historical information is scattered, but I gather that for most people throughout most of history marriage was a social and legal matter, not a religious one. The Christian church insinuated itself into the process over many centuries, and it wasn’t until the Council of Trent (1545-63) that sacramental marriage became part of canon law.

Now, wouldn’t the current social situation be much less contentious if the church simply repented of elbowing its way into the marriage business, and stopped performing weddings? I don’t insist that this is the only reading of history, but it seems to be one valid reading among many. Yet I can’t imagine even raising the possibility.

Thinking and writing are inseparable for me. And the thinking is primary. If I could think adequately without writing, I wouldn’t spend the extra time to write. Especially public writing, which runs the risk of puffing one up. I have witnessed the gradual destruction of several very smart and well-intentioned thinkers who fell prey to the dangers of writing for an audience. I am no stronger, and have no desire to develop the strength required to survive them.

So I don’t really write down my thoughts for an audience—certainly not to grow an audience—but just for myself and the few friends and family members who care to read them. And I regularly reconsider my writing habits, checking to see if the current pattern is likely to accomplish what I hope.

Right now I’m wondering about the short essay format that this blog encourages (for me, anyway). It pushes me to publish less than I might otherwise, since I want the pieces to be complete in some way, and for many of the things I’m thinking about I’m not yet ready or able to write up my conclusions. Of course, in this case less may be better, at least for the reader! But for me it means that I will usually not apply the discipline of writing to thoughts which I’m not likely to publish—perhaps they are too tentative, or likely to be provocative or contentious, as on the issue same sex marriage—and so I’m wondering if there might not be better ways to spend my limited writing time.

The form this post is an experiment in response to my worries about spending my writing time wisely. Not that it represents “the new approach”. It is only a modest attempt to write differently, to get outside the old box and into another.

Turning sixty, and some life events which accompanied that, has affected my thinking in many lasting ways. Most important, I was finally able to view my life as an arc, and to turn my attention to finishing well. I now have a tangible sense of the time left to me, as well as can and can’t be accomplished in that time. Most of my life’s possibilities are now actual. I know the things I will know, I live where I will live, I know the people I will know, and I am influencing the people I will influence. The remaining time and energy needs to be focused on assembling something of quality from the pieces already at my disposal. And time and energy grow ever shorter, so it is important not to waste them.

You are not your thoughts

I’m reading through Fr. Damascene’s Christ the Eternal Tao, and expect it to occupy me for quite awhile. Not because it’s difficult reading, it’s quite clear and approachable. I can’t recommend it as an introduction to the topic—it may be that, but what I’m finding helpful are the connections it makes between Christian and Zen concepts, ideas I’m already very familiar with (though puzzled by) on their own. For any given pair of concepts (e.g. grace/virtue, mindfulness/watchfulness) I seem to have grasped different aspects of the idea in each tradition, and so focusing on the parallels has deepened my understanding of it in both traditions.

Fr. Damascene approaches philosophical Zen—the tradition as it originally existed around 500 BC, as opposed to later versions which took on the trappings of a religion—as a foreshadowing of Christianity. Put another way, Lao Tzu went as far as a man can go in intuiting the nature of God’s economy without the help of special revelation, i.e. the Way made flesh. He deliberately contrasts this with a syncretistic approach, which would try to extract the best of both worldviews and form a third. In one place online Fr. Damascene strongly suggests that Thomas Merton was guilty of such syncretism. I don’t know if that is true, but I do find Fr. Damascene easier to understand that Merton precisely because he is so dogmatic—his statements are clear and straightforward and above all confident. Perhaps overconfident at times, but I’ll sort through that eventually.

I’ve long been puzzled about how I should relate to my thoughts, in particular what if anything I can (or should) do to control them. Zen speaks to this, but I never understood what it said about it. Turns out the Eastern Orthodox mystics say very similar things, but in a way I find more approachable.

Above all, our inward attention should be directed at thoughts. This is because, in the words of St. Theophan, “Sinful passions and desires rarely attack by themselves. They are most often born of thoughts.” From this we can make a rule: Cut off thoughts, and you will cut off everything.

When thoughts come, we should not attempt to get involved or argue with them. For such struggle only binds us to them. As St. Silouan of Mt. Athos affirms, “The experience of the holy Fathers shows various ways of combating intrusive thoughts, but it is best of all not to argue with them. The mind that debates with such a thought will be faced with its steady development, and, bemused by the exchange, will be distracted from remembrance of God, which is exactly what the demons are after. Having diverted the mind from God, they confuse it, and it will not emerge clean.” Here he is speaking specifically of intrusive thoughts that come during prayer.

Struggle against thoughts is vain and futile. It is enough simply to observe the thoughts as they arise, and then let them go without reacting to them or following them. “When someone is in the beginning of his spiritual life,” says Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, “he should not study a lot, but instead watch himself and observe his thoughts.”

Well, that’s certainly not the usual advice! And it’s reasonable to wonder whether it’s worth following, since it is often (as here) presented in the context of achieving some thought-free state.

But Fr. Damascene goes on to locate the benefits of such practice in other more practical areas.

In watching over our thoughts, we will be able to cut them off before they develop into passions. In the Philokalia, the growth from a thought into a passion is described with scientific precision. First comes the provocation of the thought, then the conjunction of the thought with emotion, then the joining or agreement of the will with the thought. If the soul does not pull back at this point, the thought becomes a habit, and the mind is constantly preoccupied with the object of his passionate urge.

Finally, the person falls into the captivity of the urge, and rushes gladly and violently to satisfy it. For this reason, it is much better to cut off the sinful thought when it first rises up in us, before it turns into a sinful passion. Just as it is much easier to pull up a tree when it is a seedling than when it is full-grown, so it is much easier to cut off thoughts in the beginning.

Now this I understand. In fact, I can related it fairly directly to Dallas Willard’s writings on how one develops Christian character. I took the goal as one of replacing bad thoughts with good—or, better, cultivating a character from which good rather than bad thoughts naturally arise. But perhaps that is only the result of a more fundamental change:

A spiritual son of Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos recalls, “The elder always tried to have good thoughts. He said to us, however, that it is not necessary to make this our final aim, namely, having good thoughts, because our souls should be purified, even of them, and be left naked, clothed only in the divine grace which we received for free in holy baptism.” The first stage is to cultivate good thoughts. The final stage is to be purified even of good thoughts, to just be enlightened by the grace of God.

(I should point out here that being “purified even of good thoughts” does not suggest that we somehow move beyond goodness, the idea is more that thoughts of any kind are still a mediator between us and God’s economy, and the ultimate goal is to be plugged directly into that economy, to be in perfect alignment with the grain of the universe, which would be true goodness.)

Purifying my own thoughts is a project I need to revisit. I think I’ve made significant progress in not being controlled by my thoughts, even to some extent in detatching from them. But I still trust implicitly in my thoughts, that they are accurate and discerning and even wise. But here lies a danger I haven’t given enough weight to:

The aforementioned Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, a beautiful, innocent soul, and a much loved spiritual father of our times, once said, “The devil does not hunt after those who are lost. He hunts after those who are aware, those who are close to God. He takes from them trust in God, and begins to afflict them with self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism.” A very interesting statement for our times. These are things we are told that we are supposed to have: Self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism. We all should be critics. He says that the devil takes from people trust in God, and begins to afflict them with these things.

More good words from Elder Paisos on this:

We ought always to be careful, and be in constant hesitation about whether things are really as we think, for when someone is constantly occupied with his thoughts and trusts in them, the devil will manage things in such a way that he will make the man evil, even if by nature he was good.

The ancient fathers did not trust their thoughts at all, but even in the smallest things, when they had to give an answer, they addressed the matter in their prayer, joining it to fasting, in order to some way “force” divine grace to inform them what was the right answer according to God. And when they received the “information” they gave the answer.

Today, I observe that, even with great matters, when someone asks, before he has even had the time to complete his question, we interrupt him and answer him. This shows that not only do we not seek enlightenment from the grace of God, but we do not even judge with the reason that God gave us. On the contrary, whatever our thoughts suggest to us, immediately, without hesitation, we trust it and consent to it, often with disastrous results.

Almost all of us view thoughts as being something simple and natural, and that is why we naively trust them. However, we should neither trust them, nor accept them. Thoughts are like airplanes flying in the air. If you ignore them, there is no problem. If you pay attention to them, you create an airport inside your head, and permit them to land.

I’ve gone on too long here, but I’m approaching the punchline, the observation that punched me in the gut, about the dangers of being judgmental:

Above all, judgmental thoughts block us from God, since in the very act of harboring them, we are trying to take the place of God, who alone is judge. When we feel an exhilaration by seeming to get on top of someone through judgment, then sooner or later this will lead to inward conflict. If the source of the conflict, which is the soul playing God, is not eradicated, then it can lead to depression and to despair, and even to physical sickness.

The person who is truly following Christ will immediately recognize that the indulgence of a single judgment separates him from God. Therefore, when judgmental thoughts intrude upon his mind, begging to be attended to, and promising the exultation of pride, he immediately cuts them off and lets them pass into oblivion. It does not matter how sagacious, how compelling, how profoundly psychological such judgments appear to him. He wants God above all else, and these thoughts deprive him of God, and so he rejects them.

The 19th century Russian elder, St. Ambrose of Optina, gave this practical advice to his spiritual daughter: “Look at everything simply. Living simply means not judging. Do not judge anyone. For example, ‘Here comes Elikonida. She passed by, and that is all.’ This is what thinking simply means. Otherwise, at seeing Elikonida passing by, you could think about her bad side—she is such and such, her character is thus and so—that is not simple.”

It is not only people that we can judge. We can pass judgment on our surrounding circumstances, or even on life itself. In doing so, we are at heart judging God, himself, often without even knowing it. This, too, is a way of playing God, and so it separates us from him, the source of our life.

This is what I needed to hear. I’ve always been very judgmental. I’ve tempered it over the years by becoming slower to judge, holding my judgments lightly, deepening my understanding of how people and situations came to be where they are, emphasizing the positive over the negative, resisting the temptation to use them for rationalizing. But they remain.

I thought that by getting them in line with God’s judgments (!) I would be doing the right thing, even contributing my best effort to extend the kingdom. Now I think that this attitude may be akin to one we’ve encountered in every child at some point, which inspired our family catch phrases “You’re not the parent,” and “Don’t be the parent, get a parent.” There must be a way to embody goodness without usurping God’s role, and I need to be more diligent about finding it.