Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Call: Chapter 4

Several brothers and sisters in our Kairos group have decided to read and discuss Os Guinness' The Call. Derek has suggested that we do some journalling based upon our readings, and I thought I might do so here, both because I can type faster than I write, and because, if the journalling is to be somewhat public, then this is a good venue for it.

I thought it interesting that this chapter echos one of the themes I touched on below, that God is a Namer and consequently so are we. God's naming is a type of calling into being;
Thus in the first chapter of Genesis, God called the light "Day" and the darkness he called "Night". This type of calling is far more than labeling...such decisive, creative naming is a form of making. Thus when God called Israel, he named and thereby constituted and created Israel his people. Call is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be. Thus "naming-calling" the fusion of being and becoming.
When God calls each of us into being, he calls into being our entire story, our entire life, which according to Ps 139 he sees in its entirety before there is yet one day of it. In this sense, His "call" comes to us simultaneously with our creation, and is always "there" before God. His call is what He has created us to be, and from His perspective does not change, and will certainly be accomplished.

From our perspective, living in these sequential dimensions of time and space, it may appear to us that our "call" changes. I have spent thirty years training to become and then practicing as a physician, and have no doubt that that was my true calling, for those years. It is not clear to me that, for the rest of my life, I am to continue to function primarily as a physician. Perhaps, when God called me forth, he saw me practicing medicine for thirty years and then teaching for twenty.

In this chapter, Guinness elaborates some on what he calls the "Catholic Distortion" of calling. This is the two-tier, higher-lower, sacred-secular, perfect-permitted dualism that sees the life of spiritual contemplation as the highest or most perfect calling, and the life of action in the world as merely permitted and second-grade. He notes that this dualistic view was present at least as early as Eusebius, and is found in Augustine and Aquinas. Luther seems to have rejected it, teaching that "all works are measured before God by faith alone."

While I agree that, so stated, this is a distortion, and one that is very prevalent today, I am always troubled by the ease with which nearly everything that is wrong with the Church can be attributed to some sort of "dualism". Any overemphasis of one end of any concept that exists in a continuum can be critiqued by positing a "dualism" that opposes one extreme to the other in an obvious manner, demonstrating that either extreme, taken alone, is wrong, and therefore that the only things to do are to either affirm the whole continuum equally or to collapse it.

In this section, we seem to be heading toward the idea that no calling is higher than any other. I'm not sure I can agree with that. Perhaps the "higher-lower" dimension runs along a different line than the sacred-secular dimension, but I have no problem acknowledging that Mother Theresa (to take an extreme example) had a higher calling than I, not because her vocation was spiritual and mine secular, but perhaps because hers required a much deeper attained sanctification than mine does. Likewise I honor as doing a higher work than myself those physicians who forego safety, honour and riches to practice among the devastated peoples of Africa or Haiti. I am struck by Paul's noting in Romans that God is free to create some vessels for honour and some for dishonour and destruction, and that suggests to me that He might also create some vessels for particularly high honor and some for less honor.

I think I like Luther's formulation, at least as it appears in this chapter: what matters is the faith with which one's activities are pursued. The value judgement of higher or lower does not attach to the job description itself, but to the person's relationship to God in the doing of it. This is what renders the work straw or stubble or silver or gold, of passing or eternal significance.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The Great Good Place

Derek Melleby, always concerned to improve my mind, has given me Ray Oldenburg's book, The Great Good Place about so-called "third places" like pubs, cafe's, coffeeshops and barbershops (think Jayber Crow or Malcolm X). I've just begun reading, but it already has me thinking, again, about creating such a place myself. My wife and I own a small house about a quarter mile from our home, at a country crossroads which is in the midst of yet more suburban development, which has attached to it a 1500 square foot building previously operated as a country store. Right now, the house is an income property and the store is used as a shop for renovating the house, and as furniture storage (we rent the house furnished.) It is in walking distance of perhaps a hundred homes, but otherwise not on the way to anything, hence is not an ideal commercial property. For about 80 years it was operated as a store by the family that lived in the house, and the son of that family, now in his 80's himself, operates a small barbershop in one corner of it to this day.

I'm interested in determining what features my readers would consider attractive enough to actually warrant their incorporating into their daily lives some visits to such a place, to meet friends and neighbors. Tomorrow, I plan to create a little five-question interview like the "Books" interview, and answer it myself, then "tag" some others to answer it. Think about it: What kind of place would you actually go to once or thrice a week, spontaneously, on the way home from work or after dinner or on the weekend, to hang out with friends and meet neighbors? What would it take to interest you in such a public, informal place?

Still the best TV ads in a while...

First seen during Superbowl 2005.


During our recent visit to San Francisco, my wife and I visited a cafĂ© and boulangerie in Japan Town each morning for coffee, tea and pastries. One morning a young man with his two- or three-year old son sat at a table near ours, and the little boy kept up a steady stream of age-appropriate babble to his father as he picked apart his pastry and ate the sweetest parts first. I was not listening closely, of course, but I did notice that he interrupted himself twice to say the seemingly random words, “fire truck.” Only then did I notice that, in the background city noise, there was indeed a siren sounding (though it was certainly a police siren.) It had nothing to do with his conversation, and he did not talk about it or seem at all excited, but simply named that sound which he recognized.

During the same trip, down by Ghirardelli’s at the waterfront, a little girl walked by with her family, pointed to a street sign and said, “Golden Gate Bridge”. I looked, and the sign was one that used a stylized logo consisting of one of the pylons and a portion of the main span to symbolize, indeed, the Golden Gate Bridge. She recognized it and named it, addressing no one in particular. No further conversation followed, just the moment of recognition and the name called forth.

These observations brought the memory of an incident that struck me years ago as my wife and I stood by the sidelines of an intramural soccer game, together with other young parents and their young children. It was a still summer evening, and a little girl pointed up into the sky past my ear and said, “Balloon is up.” She said it twice. No one but me heard her or responded, but she did not appear to be seeking a response. She seemed quite satisfied to have made an observation of a hot-air balloon hanging in the sky above us, and having all the words necessary to describe the situation: “Balloon is up.” She turned away to look for other interesting things amidst the grass and blankets.

I remembered wondering at how content she seemed to be with her knowledge of the balloon. It was up. She got it. ‘Nuff said. She had no further questions. She was exercising her human capacity to name things, to attach sounds to objects and ideas. She was delighted as only very small children can be. Her knowledge was sufficient. She had a word for the object, and a word for its relative position, and (though she could hardly yet conceive any of these categories as categories) a word asserting its existence and the predication of its position.

How much more could be thought about the balloon! How many questions could be asked about it! Why does it rise? Because the air inside it is “warm”. Why does “warm” air rise? Which is to ask, what does it mean for air to be “warm”? Why did the maker of the balloon go to such trouble to make it colorful? Why do the people inside want to fly it? So many questions, so many concepts of which the child had no idea, and so was unaware that she had no words for them.

We are those who name. Adam’s first assignment on awakening in Eden was to name the animals. Primitive cultures, and ancient cultures including the Hebrew, attach a much deeper and almost mystical significance to names than do we moderns. To know a name was to know something deep about a thing, and to such knowledge was attached power over the thing named. In some cultures a person would have a public name and also a private name known only to friends and intimates. We see a hint of this in the white stones given to the saints in Revelation, on which is his own name known only to each saint and to God. Names, good names at any rate, contain knowledge and power. I think the ancients were right about this.

In the children I observed the satisfaction and pride we take in naming things, and in attaching words to ideas. Knowing a word for that shape in the sky, for that sound in the background, allows us to appropriate it as our own in some sense. We have a symbolic bin into which to place the memory of the thing, for our own future reference and for communication with others at some distant time or place. The children were appropriately pleased with themselves.

But our fascination with words and our sense of accomplishment in naming things hides from us the great depth of our ignorance. We tend to believe that if we can describe a thing well, using words or other symbols, then we have understood it, we have encompassed it about with our understanding. In what fundamental way is the statement, “The speed of light is the same in all frames of reference” (the kernel of truth underlying Einstein’s special theory of relativity) different from the statement, “The balloon is up”? For me, the working through of Einstein’s premise takes me pretty much to the end of my adult ability to comprehend and express, whereas the observations that satisfied the children are so apparent that I no longer even think to myself, “The balloon is up.” Why do we believe that the understandings and formulations that we construct as adult humans approach knowledge significantly more closely than those of our own children? Can we not easily imagine an intelligence for whom Einstein’s theories are as elementary and apparent as a child’s observation, “Fire-truck”? When we say, “God is eternal”, what, exactly, do we really know about what we are saying?

We must be careful when we use words lest, when we have constructed a complete sentence, we believe like the little girl that we have understood something. We rarely have; we have simply named it or collected a bunch of named concepts to describe it. Such knowledge is indeed wonderful, and is one of the ways in which we share the image of Him who Names, but it is, after all, like a child’s gathering a collection of beautiful smooth stones on a riverbank and feeling that he thereby understands the river.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Natural Family Manifesto and Liberalism

In the course of a conversation about liberalism, Caleb Stegall referred me to this Manifesto by Carlson and Mero, as an example of the type of position that he favors, and presumably that he considers non-liberal (since that is the context of the argument). I would recommend it highly.

I believe that Caleb considers this document to be non-liberal because it lists among its goals the limitation of certain "rights" that are currenly enjoyed by members of our American society, such as the right to abortion, to no-fault or easy divorce, and to government-sponsored daycare. If this is so, then I am decidedly non-liberal, as I endorse all the goals in this document. Furthermore, I would suggest that nearly all the folks he has accused of being incurably and unconsciously liberal would endorse this document and its goals. True libertarians, for sure, should have difficulty with this document. But it strikes me as odd that Caleb could have missed that most of those taking issue with him are on record elsewhere as opposing gay marriage, abortion, modern feminism, and divorce. The document's view of capitalism seems muddled; the authors seem to like small-scale, family-business capitalism but not large-scale, corporate and global capitalism. Some of his readers might disagree with the Family Wage concepts discussed therein, but I suspect that most would agree (again, including myself.)

My difficulty with Caleb may be that he seems to find fault with the modern liberal democracy in its processes, and does not distinguish this from its ends. He does not seem to like the process of sitting at a common table with representatives of antagonistic (to the goals of the Manifesto, for example) groups and foregoing coercive methods in favor of seeking consensus, seeming to believe that to procedurally grant equal discursive weight to contradictory beliefs or goals is tantamount to reducing those beliefs or goals to mere preferences or styles. If this is his view, and I am by no means certain that it is, it seems a willful ignorance about the depth of commitment by his blogging colleagues to many of these non-liberal, rights-limiting goals of political discourse and action.

This manifesto uses the formula, "We will...(recognize, allow, empower)." It nowhere states the mechanism by which these changes will be made. It is presumed that the Manifesto envisions such changes in the law of the land to occur through the processes of our modern liberal democracy. Interestingly, it traces the origin of our problem back to the French revolution, but not to our own. Is our own liberal democracy not deeply founded upon the thought of John Locke? It is undoubtedly so. If the Manifesto were to suggest that these changes are to take place through a military coup, or that after gaining political power through the means of liberal democracy we should abolish that democracy, and that process, in favor of rule by the church and an active suppression of dissenting opinion, then I would be against not the Manifesto's goals but its methodology. I see nothing in the Manifesto to suggest that it has anything but the highest regard for the process of modern liberal democracy. It merely makes the assertion that the smallest political unit is the family, not the individual.

This was actually the subject of one of my oral exams (which are really discussions led by the student) at St. John's: whether Locke's system requires the individual to be the smallest unit, or whether its account of government could be developed from some larger unit, such as a family or clan. It was my premise that it could be developed from a presumption of families or clans as the smallest unit. supported by the observation that Locke develops his sytem from individuals already organized as families (as opposed to Hobbes, who sees his state of nature as being mate-in-the-woods and move on.) For Locke, the family and clan were precursors of the larger state, very close to the state of nature, and not identical with the organization of the state of course. (He eschewed the argument for monarchy based on patriarchy). Nevertheless, all such formulations with the family as the smallest unit have difficulty comprehending the renegade individual. Just as biology, while recognizing the organism as a unit in some circumstances, must recognize the cell as a unit in many other circumstances. One cannot ignore the individual cell, simply because all larger tissues are, in one very important sense, simply organized collections of them. About half of us will die from the consequences of a single cell losing control of itself and escaping from the surveillance of the collective's systems to replicate itself, commandeer resources, and ultimately destroy the whole organization (cancer.)

Anyway, the Manifesto is an excellent document, somewhat simplistic perhaps in some of its macroeconomic ideas. The rights it proposes to curtail are not rights of access to the "public square", or to a "seat at the table", but only "rights" to behave in certain ways or to have one's property taxed or not taxed based on one's position in society and families. All this seems to me to be totally consistent with Locke's system, and hence with the modern liberal democracy, with the sole exception that this document asserts (though without working it out) that the family, not the individual, is the smallest political unit. Perhaps it is therefore crypto-patriarchal, but I don't think so. I'd like to see someone work through, as I tried at St. John's, a representative form of government based upon families. Would adult unmarried children vote? If so, would they have to vote like their father? Mother? If not, isn't this individualistic?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Books tag.

Derek Melleby has tagged me to answer the Books questionaire...

How many books do you own?
Counting only books on the shelves or on the floor next to shelves (ie, not in cartons in the attic), and only books thick enough to have titles on the spines, we have over 1,400 titles. Keep in mind that we homeschooled four children, so have many juvenile titles (think Newberry titles.)

What was the last book you bought?
I'm not certain, but in the "read next" pile are Lauren Winner's Real Sex, Guinness' Unspeakable, McIntyre's After Virtue, and Nahim's An Imaginary Tale: The Story of i (square root of -1).

What's the last book you read?
The last book I completed was Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack. Almost finished Colson and Cameron's Human Dignity in the Biotech Century.

What are the five books that mean the most to you?
This is really hard. As if one book I will list all the essays of C. S. Lewis, especially those in Weight of Glory and The Problem of Pain. If there is one writer whose thoughts and examples I quote or contemplate most often, it would be Lewis. In fiction, I suppose the Lord of the Rings might be best beloved, together with Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. Very influential in my appreciation of poetry was Carl Sandburg (when I was very young) and T. S. Eliot (especially Four Quartets) when I reached middle age. My favorite Biblical commentator would be C. H. Spurgeon (or possibly Boice), and my favorite book of the Bible would be Ecclesiastes. I realize that I have not specified many titles, but I guess I orient more to authors than specific titles.

I do not have a very wide blog world, and most of those I know of have already been tagged. I'd be interested in hearing from my sons who have public blogs, David and Daniel, and a near-son, Justin Cave.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Ecclesiastes and air travel

Flying to a distant city is an experience that affirms the observations of the Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

This person here is a millionaire; he owns more and makes more than 98% of Americans, which means more than 99.9% of human beings. But look, from way up here you can barely see his house. In fact, if that house were bulldozed into dust, together with all his possessions, you couldn't detect a change in the landscape at all. The dust would barely reach the end of his street. He is part of a barely perceptible layer adherent to the great sphere of the earth, a film that could be scraped off with a fingernail. From here in the sky, not even very high up, I can look over the habitats of literally millions of his fellow creatures, his great cities merely a sort of excrescence, a scab upon the curve of the earth below. The smallness of his life, of his influence, is appalling. Truly man is dust, he is of yesterday and knows nothing.

I land in San Francisco. I make no difference whatsoever. Not one person in the city cares where I am from, who I am, what I do. I could be murdered in the Tenderloin and the city would grind on without a twitch, without a thought for my demise, because, truly, I mean nothing to it, I am completely inconsequential. I am not even visible from passing airplanes.

Considered from a viewpoint of a cruising 757, "under the sun", between the heavens and the earth, we are individually nothing, and even collectively, one senses that we could all die from plague and the earth would go on, the mountains would remain covered with snow, the desert foxes would hunt their prey, we would not be missed by this planet that is so huge, upon which we are such an insignificant smear. Yet our God knows each of us. It is a measure of the smallness of our minds that we work it backwards; we appreciate how small we are by contemplation of the size of the earth and its population. We do not think, because we cannot comprehend, how large God is to know, utterly, each one of those billions of souls as if she alone existed, to know each one better than I know my wife and children. What is man that thou considerest him? A smear on the earth, thinner than the the smear of mold on a tomato, yet each one a real person in God's eyes, known by Him. Let us enjoy our work under the sun, for that is God's gift to man. Let us not think it is particularly important in the grand scheme of things, or that we understand our place and the meaning of our lives. We do not. Yet that knowledge is not required of us; all that is required is that we remember God, that we attend to the relationship that makes us human and makes us significant apart from our miniscule effect upon the planet. We are known by the only knower that matters.

Monday, July 04, 2005

God is so personal...

There are various reasons for my not having blogged for the past is a big decision about where to go next with the embryology series, and a need to read some more before proceeding. Another is that my wife and I have been in San Francisco for the past week or so.

One reason for our trip was the duty to scatter my sister-in-law's ashes in the Pacific, as she had requested. She died two years ago, at age 52, of lung cancer, a few days after confessing her faith in the Lord Jesus, and the latter after over 30 years of faithful prayer by my wife. Susie loved the coast of the Monterey bay and peninsula, and especially loved the sea otters there. I found myself with 14 days off in a row, and we decided rather spur-of-the moment to fly west and do it.

Barb and I drove south from 'Frisco to a peninsula near Monterey and began to hike around looking for a good place to put the ashes into the sea. The vistas were gorgeous, with waves crashing on a rocky coast, twisted cypresses leaning against the wind, millions of nesting cormorants and other sea birds. We spent hours hiking the trails, looking for a spot that was private and had access to the water. Though it was unspoken, we both knew that Barb was also looking for sea otters. We knew that this area was a refuge for otters, and that, of course, there would therefore be otters around somewhere, or sometime, even if we didn't actually see one today. Still, Susie wanted otters…Barb wanted otters. We saw lots of seals hauled up on rocks or swimming around, but no otters. Finally, as the day waned, we had to just go somewhere and do it.

We had found one area of sandy beach that would do, though it wasn't, clearly, what we had in mind. We were thinking crashing waves with sea otters. There was one area we had not explored, and I had one of those odd, easy-for-a-scientist-like-me-to-dismiss-as-insignificant hunches that we should go there, and hike south, and if we didn't find "the spot", we would eventually end up at the beach which was at least acceptable. So that's what we did.

We parked and hiked out to the shore. There it was, the private rocky surf-carved place we were seeking. The surf was dramatic and a little scary, and the tide was coming in rapidly. We prayed, we cried, we thanked God for saving Susie at last, and committed her ashes to the sea.

As we rose to leave the rocks, I used the binoculars for one last scan of the kelp-fields. There, on his back smashing mussels on his belly, was a sea otter. Barb was delighted; this was the final touch, the personal touch of a God who cares about his children. I was moved again by the amazingly personal nature of God.

I realized that God frequently acts this way towards my wife. She prays, under her breath as it were, “It would be really nice if, on my fortieth birthday, God sent me a bluebird in the back yard. No big deal, but it would be nice.” And he does. “It would be really special if, when we scatter Susie’s ashes, there were sea otters.” And despite our efforts and hours of hiking in the “right” place, we cannot find a sea otter. Then, immediately after committing the ashes, there is a sea otter.

God does not act this way toward me, because I am not the same kind of person as my wife. I would not appreciate it, perhaps. I would write it off as coincidence, as silly, as beneath God’s attention. We do not relate in this way, God and I. But my wife has a collection of such personal touches in her life, the “insignificant” detail that was just the thing she was looking for as sign of God’s touch.

There is a recent movie whose identity escapes me, in which one character says to another, “It’s nothing personal.” And the other character wonders, “What does that mean? Everything is personal!” It is perhaps peculiarly (fallen) human to segregate events into personal and impersonal. Perhaps everything, literally, is personal. My relationship to my children is entirely personal; I regularly distinguish between them, love them differently according to their natures, and treat them differently according to their differing persons. In our home, we have always eschewed the concept of “fairness” as applied between parent and child among siblings. We do not pretend to treat all our children the same way; they are not the same persons. They have not grown up in the same home. One was an only child of parents in their mid twenties; one was a child with three older siblings and more experienced parents in their thirties. Everything is personal. In our home, the argument, “But you let so-and-so do it” carries almost no weight. You are not so-and-so, and my responsibility and relationship here is to you, not him. “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”

Perhaps we act impersonally because our minds are too small to act entirely personally. We have generalizing laws because we cannot manage case-by-case justice, every case taken absolutely on its own terms. We revert to custom and convention because we cannot attain to the complexity of really considering every person and every situation as entirely distinct and different. But God, of course, can and does.

If God is entirely personal, and if persons are the most fundamental things in the creation (which I suspect they are), then we cannot expect God to behave entirely “consistently”, i.e., he will not always do the same thing in what appears to us to be the “same circumstances”. They are not, of course, the same circumstances. They are only the “same” in a general way, a generalization required by our limited intellects, but not required in fact. This may be why scientific analyses do not reveal God’s activity; His activity does not follow what we would recognize as “natural laws”, which are fully generalizable predications. It may be, however, that the laws we do recognize simply “emerge” from God’s personal activity toward each of the billions of persons in his creation insofar as each of those persons do require certain consistencies of context to interact with each other and with Him. But this is to enter upon another topic, as well as to travel pretty far out a speculative branch.

In summary, I am overwhelmed by the deeply personal manner in which God relates to each of us, by the contemplation of the size of the heart and mind of a Being capable of such individuated concern for each of us. The whole world is transformed into a more deeply beautiful and mysterious place by these thoughts