Quite a lot of people hate these pieces. Happily, not too many are among my Gentle Readers. But as I’ve said before, I write from what’s on my mind at the moment.
I spend a fair fraction of my day actively straining to listen.
That statement tends to provoke a lot of “Huh? Say what?” reactions. After all, we expect that there’ll be a bit more to the sentence: “Listen to what?” is the usual rejoinder. And there is some justice in it, for most of the time a man who is listening has a specific “speaker” in mind. He’s trying to “tune out” everything else.
At some times I fit that pattern, but at others I’m simply trying to attend to whatever is “speaking.” Or not speaking, come to think of it. A great jazz guitarist once said that the spaces between the notes are quite as important as the notes themselves. It’s a perspective to remember.
The worlds speak to us in innumerable ways. Yes, worlds plural. And if one disciplines himself sufficiently, such that he can achieve a high degree of internal silence, the voices of unusual things – other than human, and at times other than immediate or temporal at all – can get through to him.
Some of them have stories to tell. Some are stories in and of themselves. Some are stories yet untold. And all stories want to be told.
I’ll bet the great majority of my Gentle Readers have read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In my junior year in high school it was required reading. I was mesmerized by it, and have reread it many times since then. Yet even today, more than fifty years later, I find that it has messages that I hadn’t previously grasped.
Consider the quasi-apotheosis of “Ford,” a name which appears in many locutions where one might expect the name of God or Lord: “Once upon a time,” the Director began, “while Our Ford was still on earth…” For a very long period before the time of Our Ford… “Ford’s in his flivver,” murmured the D.H.C. “All’s well with the world.” It didn’t occur to me, then, why Huxley chose to do this.
Henry Ford, a name that has hardly been lost in the mists of time, was among the first industrialists – perhaps the very first; the records are a bit inconsistent – to treat men as components in a mechanical process: mass production as it arose in the early Twentieth Century. That was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the artisan, who “programmed himself” rather than repeating an action prescribed by a superior. The artisan, in contrast to the assembly-line worker, usually worked alone. He also worked in silence.
Ponder the social and occupational-environment changes that arose in the decades that followed.
We are “programmed” to a greater extent than any generation before us…and our generation might not be at the terminus of the progression. We don’t resist that programming, in the main. Rather, we collaborate in it to the extent required to “get ahead.” Those of us who resent it, however inarticulately, tend to do so through a kind of counter-programming. That is, we organize our “free time” – the time left to us by our occupations and other obligations – around activities distant from those things.
Those “free time” activities are freely chosen…aren’t they?
It’s unclear, at least. The indications are somewhat ominous. Not many Americans of today actually reserve time to think. It’s a difficult undertaking, after all. It requires solitude and silence, commodities that are becoming rare. But without conscious thought there can be no conscious action. What we believe we choose for ourselves might be as programmed into us as the duties of our jobs.
This has the aroma of danger. No, we’re not all Thoreaus who have the luxury of toting a supply of beef jerky and toilet paper to a cabin in the woods such that we can be alone with ourselves in the silence. But a man who never allows himself any time for solitude and silence just might surrender his remaining autonomy to the many voices that continuously strive to direct him into channels of their preference. A creature that succumbs ceases, in any sense other than the strictly biological, to be a man.
You knew a quote was coming, didn’t you? It won’t be the last:
What is freedom? Freedom is the right to choose: the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice and the exercise of choice a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing. – Archibald MacLeish
Some years ago I read a remarkable novel, The Dice Man, whose protagonist discovered a unique compromise between absolute personal choice and a pre-programmed existence. Protagonist Luke, bored and frustrated by his ultra-mundane existence at midlife, develops a quasi-aleatoric approach to his days: he’ll chart his course by the fall of dice. He creates options and assigns one to each of the possible combinations one die – sometimes two – can produce, rolls it or them, and proceeds with the option the fall of the dice has decreed.
Somehow, this improves his lot. Moreover, it catches on. But the authorities of Luke’s tale dislike it intensely. And yes, they do what authorities tend to do to those they dislike.
I cannot recommend this as an approach to life. And I shan’t tell you any more about the novel. It’s worth reading in its entirety. But it’s worth reflecting on how the world around Luke reacts to his novel technique for injecting even a little unpredictability, a little surprise, into a programmed, stultified existence that brought him to the verge of suicide.
The intent of programming – take it from one who knows – is to eliminate the unpredicted, the random, and the unaccounted-for. In so doing, the programmer constrains the behavior of the programmed person or thing to the set of responses with which the program can cope. In the software field, he who does this successfully and consistently is regarded as a master of the craft. As difficult as it can be in software, in the social, economic, and political realms it’s much, much harder. That’s why so much time and ingenuity is put into it by so many persons, agencies, and institutions.
It’s not all “Mad Ave,” Gentle Reader. Consider only this: How many times have you heard about “our two-party system” — ? Are you aware that there are other parties? I hope so. Are you aware that those “minor” parties have often determined the result of an election – without getting their candidate(s) elected? Are you aware of the influence the vote totals that go to “minor” parties have on the platforms of the major parties, and the positions adopted by their candidates in subsequent elections?
Yet a million screaming politicians, commentators, and “influencers” will tell you that to give your vote to a minor-party candidate is to “waste it.” Is it really? Are you totally convinced of that proposition – and if so, what would you make of the influence the Socialist, Green, Libertarian, and Right To Life parties have had upon major-party platforms and the outcomes of state and federal elections?
Quite a number of citizens who are non-voters abstain from voting because “there’s no one worth voting for” and “my vote can’t affect anything.” Defy the programming! Consider voting for a minor party’s candidate(s) next time around. You might have more influence than you know.
The room had grown dim. It had gotten quite late, but neither Ray nor Christine was in any hurry to conclude their chat.
“What makes it hard for most people,” Ray said, “is that we tend to think of God as just a very powerful temporal entity, like some sort of super-magician. But He’s not. He created time. He looks down on it from above, the way you or I would read a map. He knows the path we follow because He knows all the paths we might follow, and what might flow from every one of them.” He sat back and reflected for a moment. “So our time-dependent language about ‘choosing’ and ‘knowing’ gets us into trouble when we try to apply it to God.”
“You know,” Christine said, “that would go a long way toward explaining the Trinity, too.”
“Hm? How so?”
“Well, why is the Trinity a tough nut to crack? Because people can’t be in more than one place at a time, right? Wherever you go, there you are, and you’re still you.”
“Uh…” Am I getting in over my head here? “That could be part of it.”
She leaned toward him, intensity and delight merging in her expression. “But if you take the Gospels as factual, then the evidence says there were three divine Persons, even if that’s tough for us time-bound types to imagine. You don’t have to figure out how you could pull it off. You just have to allow that He can do that sort of thing even if we can’t!”
Ray opened his mouth, closed it without speaking. Christine frowned.
“Did I say something wrong, Father?”
“Not at all, dear,” he said. “In fact, I think you’ve been teaching me my trade.” He grimaced in rueful remembrance. “I used to think more about these things when I was a teen. Talks like this one were why I wanted to become a priest.”
[From Shadow of a Sword]
Among the things we’re programmed to accept is an insidious one that crosscuts faith in a particularly vicious way: Mysteries must be solved; that’s what they’re for.
I mean no disrespect toward the aficionados of murder mysteries – I’d better not; I’m married to one – but the sort of puzzler mystery writers present to us isn’t all-encompassing. The mysteries of faith are of another order. They’re emphatically not problems to be solved.
How can there be an Uncreated Creator who knows all things, even things that haven’t yet happened and, quite possibly, might not happen? How can there be one God who is nevertheless three divine Persons, each of the Three able to operate independently yet all united in their divinity? How can a virgin conceive and bear a Son? And what about all these miracles that would be contrary to the laws of nature? How are we supposed to understand them?
We’re not. They were given to us for two reasons. The first of these is simple: By accepting them, we enter into a community of faith that accepts Man’s littleness before God. The second is perhaps the hardest thing that has ever been asked of Mankind, despite its infinite benevolence: By accepting them despite our inability to “solve” them, we submit to the ultimate Authority. We take our first, tentative step out of the temporal and toward the eternal. And we learn to adore.
[T]he one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together. Christian brotherhood is, so to speak, the technical equipment for this science—the laboratory outfit. That is why all these people who turn up every few years with some patent simplified religion of their own as a substitute for the Christian tradition are really wasting time. Like a man who has no instrument but an old pair of field glasses setting out to put all the real astronomers right. He may be a clever chap—he may be cleverer than some of the real astronomers, but he is not giving himself a chance. And two years later everyone has forgotten all about him, but the real science is still going on.
If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.
As today is Trinity Sunday, the day Christians explicitly acknowledge the Trinitarian Mystery and its centrality to our faith, I had to get that in. It’s not a soluble problem, at least not here under the veil of time by the exceedingly finite minds of mortal men. It’s a “reality mystery,” a marvel in which to immerse oneself…to humble our intellects as it delights our need for wonder…and to teach us to adore.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen. And may God, in all His Persons, bless and keep you all!