Pluralism, in all its forms

A friend sent me an article about the rise of Christian nationalism. I’m definitely a Christian, but not a Christian nationalist. So this got me thinking about pluralism, and why it’s complicated — as most things are.

The article asserted that up to two-thirds of white evangelicals are either Christian nationalists or “sympathizers”, and I bristled a bit at that. I’m definitely an evangelical, though given how prone some are to misunderstand what that term means, I understand why some now seek a different label. To me, it simply means being an heir to the solas of the Reformation, in an admittedly non-magisterial way. That shouldn’t be controversial; I suppose that the caricatures of my faith are the problem, and labels are always tricky. I’m not a pietist, but I believe in piety. I’m not a fundamentalist, but I hold to the fundamentals of my faith. I’m not a separatist, though I do spend a lot of my time alone now that my beautiful Diane is gone.

I believe in civic pluralism — that used to go without saying; so few things are allowed to go without saying now. But to me that simply means that all Americans are politically and legally equal (sometimes they aren’t treated as such), and should be, and that we take the voice of the people as determinative in the moment. The proper response to a lost election is an attempt to do better in the next one; it’s odd for me to write those words as if this were not just a given. It’s not clear to me that this is what everyone means by pluralism; indeed, it’s not entirely clear to me what others mean by many other things.

I checked Wikipedia, since they’re never wrong, except when they are, to see how many flavors of pluralism there might be. They cited Isaiah Berlin, calling him an “arch-pluralist” (I’ve read some of his work, and there’s not too much that I find arch about it), as follows: “let us have the courage of our admitted ignorance, of our doubts and uncertainties… [and] try to discover what others … require, by … making it possible for ourselves to know men as they truly are, by listening to them carefully and sympathetically, and understanding them and their lives and their needs”. Actually, there is no logically necessary connection between the first and the second of these assertions; compassion doesn’t require a lack of conviction, though a bit of epistemic humility works well as a garnish.

They continue by asserting that pluralists eschew extremism (and often spit it out), which I do; and that they are optimists about the notion of a sustainable definition of the common good, which I try to be, though by temperament I am a bit dour. Pluralists are said to value good faith dialogue, which I agree is an improvement over deliberate perfidy, and avoid having a hidden agenda. There’s nothing wrong with an agenda, though; the problem is with a lack of transparency about it. Phrases that obscure the agenda, such as “it’s not a date”, are to be avoided when possible. Put your cards on the table, I say; it’s all right to do that face down, since we all need plausible deniability, but only in moderation.

Well, this to me avoids the main point — there are two of them, really. The first is whether a pluralist has to be a relativist; I’m the former but not the latter. Some things are “really truly true”, as noted in the famous novel Bobbitt (no, not Babbitt), which was about a child actor who found it difficult to grow up. As a corollary, those who disagree with them are what I like to call wrong; not necessarily fatally wrong, often excusably and understandably wrong, yet wrong. Logic demands that; the law of noncontradiction has not yet been repealed. Of course, I don’t pretend that I’m always right; I’m no doubt frequently wrong, the challenge being to figure out which times those are. For instance, I used to think that the capital of South Dakota was Aberdeen. It’s not, but allow me to state for the record that it should be.

I note en passant that many, perhaps most, religious traditions including my own contain a mixture of inclusivist and exclusivist elements. I don’t see this as a problem; one can only define a category X with reference to things that are non-X, or there simply is no category. “I notice that you’re a contingent being!” “Well, who isn’t?” This is why membership in the League of Contingent Beings doesn’t require any annual dues, because there’s no down side to a failure to pay them. One remains contingent just the same; it’s a status that can’t be revoked, really. I think of my faith as remarkably inclusive, because anyone who desires it may drink of the water of life without cost, the price having already been paid. What could be more inclusive than that? But those who don’t want to drink it are presumably self-excluded; this seems necessary, though genuinely tragic. The door of grace remains open; one need only enter.

The second main point — you thought I forgot, didn’t you? — is that the American experiment is nearly unprecedented in that we have attempted to build and maintain a society that lacks a clear consensus about the true and the good. It’s necessary to do that if one seeks to be pluralistic; but the parameters of that have been stretched more of late, for varying reasons. Some on the left fear theocratic authoritarianism; some on the right fear anti-religious authoritarianism. Both have existed at various times and places in history — there was Oliver Cromwell, and there was Maximilien Robespierre. Around the globe today, we see in Modi’s India a place that is hostile to non-Hindus, and in Xi’s China a place that is hostile to any religious believer, and so on. Pluralism isn’t on the ascendant across the planet just now; and its enemies aren’t all to the left or to the right of the muddled middle I inhabit, but agree on coerced conformity, which I reject.

While some are suspicious even of the notion of freedom of conscience now, seeing somehow in that phrase an Orwellian inverse, I like the First Amendment very much; it’s no accident that Madison thought it belonged at the beginning of the lineup. People have to choose for themselves what they value and how they order their lives, with the government remaining as aloof as it can from playing referee. We may disagree about when it can do so; I admit that freedom of conscience may not quite be a political absolute, since there is always a balancing of the goods. But it comes close in my mind; and if I desire America to be positively influenced by my faith, that can only happen if I am winsome and wise, truthful and transparent, and (I hope) a light in a dark place. Stay tuned.

So I think Wikipedia is wrong when they assert that to be a pluralist is to call all views and all ways of life equally legitimate. That is obviously false; believing that the earth is flat is mistaken, and making a living as a purveyor of ransomware is reprehensible. What they may mean is that we ought not be too quick to judge, and should remember that we all stumble in many ways; and with that, I heartily concur. I almost slipped in the tub just this morning, due to my arthritic knee.

As a metaphor

I’ve been doing a lot of reading since Diane’s death almost twenty months ago, not quite having a life now. (It’s not as bad as it was in the first terrible months after her death, but of course it’s nowhere as good as it was before her illness began.) I read widely (I need to lose twenty pounds) on a range of topics including political history, personality diversity, comparative religion, cats (of course), and so on. I like e-books; this is an unsolicited endorsement of the Kindle line of products. “I have made fire!”

One book I started recently was Good Faith, which was written in part by members of the Barna Group. Their thesis is that convictional Christian faith — we can quibble, later, about what precisely that means — is increasingly deviant from the broader cultural default, and thus is increasingly at risk of being seen as “extremist”. Well, if anyone thinks me an extremist, I can only ask, have you met me? I’m not the sort of person you’d be terrified to meet in a dark alley. “Psst! Buddy! Want some books on systematic theology? The first one is free!” I’m quirky, but I’m not scary — as far as I know.

But I take their point. The authors argue that the wider culture thinks of life in terms of the “supremacy of the autonomous self” — the notion that personal fulfillment and individuation are what life is all about; so people like me are seen (they assert) as joy-killing moralists, as judgmental hypocrites who want to spoil everyone else’s party. I don’t usually go to parties, actually, which from one point of view somewhat confirms the stereotype; but I have fun, by which I mean cats, in my own introverted, risk-averse way. I pet the cat, but I don’t inhale — wait, that’s an outdated cultural reference now, which is a problem I have.

People differ, they note (and I’m guessing that they can’t be the first to have noticed this), in their beliefs and values; as a nation, we’ve always had to deal with that reality. Arguably, we’re more diverse than we used to be in such matters; or, if you lean left (scoliosis is a growing health concern in developed countries), we’re less hegemonic, and less willing to “privilege” the Christian faith that was statistically consensual for most of our history; so the problem of accommodating differing, and indeed competing, views with grace and tolerance is harder than it used to be. How’s that for a long sentence? I do what I can, first deactivating the grammar check algorithm that thinks it knows more than I do, which it doesn’t. “You write like the apostle Paul!” one friend told me recently; and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I took that as a compliment.

The way our culture deals with this now, the authors continue, is by having (as a new norm or folkway) the idea that one can have private convictions, but they should remain private. That is, one shouldn’t talk (or write) about them, especially to people who don’t share them; in this way, each person can go on being solipsistic, even if they don’t know the word. But, of course, this bumps against the mandate in my faith to share the gospel — not offensively, not insensitively, but (in the end) clearly. And so, I can fit in, or I can do what God commands, but not both.

Well, heck.

Many believers (of any faith that makes absolutistic truth claims, but especially Christians since we’re the most numerous in America of those who make religiously-based claims of this sort), the authors contend, straddle the fence uneasily as best they can. From one point of view, this is a form of cowardice; from another, it’s a form of tact, and even of contextualization. I don’t know, though I try to be transparent (our culture does value authenticity, so it’s hard for the culture to deny me the right to say what my story is, though I’m supposed to avoid telling others what their story has to be) and yet sensitive. The fact that some people don’t really understand me (“you use such big words”, another friend said, which I also chose to frame as a compliment, though it hindered me from asking her for a date) may reduce my perceived threat level. Academics aren’t frightening — we’re odd, I grant you, but we’re not frightening. “I see your modus ponens, and raise you a reductio ad absurdum! Table syllogisms only.”

Well, the book goes on to suggest that everyone thinks their own point of view to be the most likely, valid, or correct one; if not, why would they continue to hold it? Even allowing for the desire to mimic the tribal markers of whatever group within which one might desire to seek shelter, people don’t like cognitive dissonance; they like to state, openly, what they think true, which for me is John 3:16 and John 14:6. Indeed, I like honesty; I’m funny that way, and I appreciate it when others say what they think, whether they agree with me or not. One can disagree cordially; I learned that in kindergarten, along with how to use papier-mâché, which has somewhat fallen out of favor now, but may again start trending without warning.

In my separate newsletter on grief and recovery, I write about my uneven, nonlinear grief journey, and I feel this tension of being open about my faith but also inoffensive, authentic but not pushy, unashamed but sensitive to the backstories (which I don’t know) of readers who don’t share my view of the world. Whether I do this well or not is well above my pay grade to discern; I hope I maintain an appropriate balance. I do believe in epistemic humility; there is, by definition, some nonzero probability that my deepest convictions are mistaken (and the same is true of yours, dear reader, whatever they may be). I’m certain enough, however, to say that I know (not just hope or wish), and am willing to stake my life and my destiny on what I believe to be true; this used to be acceptable in the wider culture, and may or may not still be so.

People who don’t share my faith (and even some who do) sometimes construe it, I think exaggeratedly in a sense, of being Manichaean — an existential battle between good and evil. Well, in a way, that’s true — except that other human beings are never the enemy. I’m not better than those who might disagree philosophically with me — I think that I’ve found something that they yet lack, but that’s different altogether. I believe in a confident civic pluralism (which isn’t the same as relativism); I’m not a theonomist or an integralist. Yet, there are lines I won’t cross — we all need them; and we need to know in advance where they lie, lest we be tempted to blur them under duress. I often assert that most boundaries are fuzzy and fractal — but some aren’t; and I know full well which ones I’ll never violate, whatever the cost.

So when I write about grief, loss, healing, or other topics (mostly on the other site mentioned above), to those who don’t share my faith convictions, I encourage those readers to treat what I say as a schema or a metaphor, a lens through which I view the world. I think, of course, that it’s far more than just that; but the initial goal is to preserve a dialogue. And two people can have a meaningful dialogue, even if neither party changes their mind; both may gain useful, and even sometimes respectful or compassionate, insight into what it’s like to see the world from a different perspective. Sometimes, people can approach one another by means of their common humanity, even if their ideologies and views are incommensurable; heart calls to heart (cor ad cor loquitur), as Newman said, since in the end, we’re all made of clay.

Gesturing toward hope

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Shadi Hamid (senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, regular contributor to the Atlantic, and — paradoxically or not — research professor at Fuller Seminary) titled The Problem of Democracy. It’s one of those books that, for someone like me, gets neurons to light up across the cortex, and suddenly creates connections between things that seemed previously separate to me. I like that, being a former academic or whatever.

The book is largely about the Middle East, but he talks about a fault line that runs down the middle of liberal democracy, which is that liberalism can easily become undemocratic and democracy can without warning become illiberal. The two coexist in an uneasy emulsion, like a vinaigrette. In the America of the 1950s (into which I was born), it was more or less taken for granted that we, as a nation, could be both good and great, both humane and powerful, both egalitarian and supportive of traditional hierarchical structures. We’d built our society atop a fault line, but we didn’t realize it.

Now, by liberalism, he at first claims to mean something other than left-of-center politics. He doesn’t mean blue America; he means (he says initially) the classical liberalism of the Founders, and political ideas that were forged in the Enlightenment. But, then, he almost admits, the philosophes of the Enlightenment were very much left of center in their own day. They were generally anticlerical, they were sometimes libertine, and they elevated (supposedly autonomous) reason over divine revelation. This is why the Founders, though many were imbued with a deep, convictional Christian faith, spoke of “Nature’s God” (in a not so subtle nod to deism), not the God of Luther or Pascal. None of those things are anything like me, as it turns out, which is why I tend to lean very gently to the right, aided by my arthritic knee. So, he suggests cleverly, liberalism seems neutral only to liberals; and I have to agree.

LIberalism in this sense at first seems mostly procedural (checks and balances), though the proceduralism really belongs to democracy, which as noted above isn’t the same thing. But it also seeks to affirm what it claims as universal values, including tolerance and coexistence, that can (at least in theory) hold together a nation of individuals who have vastly differing, and even quite incompatible, visions of the Good, and very diverse notions of the ultimate purposes of human existence. When our society was perhaps more ideologically homogeneous than it is today, this somewhat worked (though admittedly at the price of sweeping some egregious evils under the rug). But now, as the society becomes more shrill, and even zero-sum, tolerance and coexistence are suffering from serious supply chain problems. So the risk, in the end, is that those in power in a liberal society will become intolerant of those whom they perceive as intolerant, and coercive toward those whom they perceive as coercive.

Democracy, in contrast, in his minimalist formulation is entirely procedural. It’s about ensuring that the people have political sovereignty, and that the majority rules, but always temporarily, because we keep on having free and fair elections in which each side has a rational hope of prevailing next time. Democracy so defined has no overarching end-of-history goals (whereas liberalism, which Hamid says inevitably tends toward social progressivism, whether it will or nill, does). It simply respects the will of the electorate, gently (but not excessively) tempered by constitutional protections to avoid the “tyranny of the majority” problem.

But, of course, democratic procedures can lead to illiberal outcomes, not only in a partisan sense (“I am shocked… shocked… to find the electorate supporting traditional religious values!”), but in the exigent sense that people can freely vote an autocrat into power. Hamid cleverly calls this “one person, one vote, one time”, because after that one has a dictator for life. Democracy can be oppressive to those who may have lost an election by a single vote. (“I told you, Billy-Bob, that the election was today!”) It isn’t, in itself, all that attuned to the rights of minorities, except to the extent that they constitute a voting bloc that might produce electoral consequences. Those concerns come from something else — be it Enlightenment secularism or, as in my case, the Christian faith — that is focused on matters of virtue and of ultimate ends, and attempts to see human beings as having intrinsic value in their own right.

This analysis did awaken me to an interesting tension in my own rather inchoate political philosophy. (By “inchoate”, I mean that I usually vote for the taller presidential candidate, which means that I can skip the debates with a clear conscience.) On the one hand, my life is undoubtedly centered on my deeply convictional faith, which loosely defined was culturally normative in America during my younger days, but no longer. I don’t seek (in the term that is so often bandied about) to “impose” it on those who dissent from it, since belief in the inviolability of human choice (free will was God’s idea) is a pivotal element of the biblical worldview. (“Choose this day whom you will serve” – Joshua 24:15.) But I do seek to order my life by it, and (of course) I don’t set it aside — for the same reason that I don’t surgically remove my heart and leave it on a side table when I enter the voting booth — when I engage the political realm. This would have annoyed John Rawls, but too bad; again, liberalism isn’t neutrality, even if Rawls perhaps thought that it is.

On the other hand, I affirm both the reality but even (on some days, depending on whether I’ve yet had my morning coffee) the abstract desirability, of diversity in society. I believe strongly in freedom of conscience as a prime directive (and, indeed, when people are allowed to follow their own conscience, they’ll find perhaps to their surprise that the law has been written on their hearts all along); and as our society becomes ever more pluralistic, it will be more and more difficult for us to find a sustainable center. But we can’t achieve consensus (or peace) by suppressing the values of those with whom we might disagree; and for this (and many other reasons) I’m not a Christian nationalist, nor an integralist, nor a theocrat. I’m not Rousas Rushdoony; but I recognize that his ideas have impacted many within the church, to (I believe) the detriment of our witness.

So perhaps my life has been built atop a fault line, too; I experience this in numerous ways, some of which would be more germane than others to the narrow topic of this essay. I’m both an academic (my career was in secular academia) and an evangelical Christian. I have tried (and, some might argue, failed) to follow the advice of Charles Wesley, who was able to lament (even in his day!) that knowledge and vital piety had been “long disjoined”, and that it was the job of believers to reunite them, first in their own lives, and then (by kindly words and virtuous life) in the wider culture, one heart at a time, one life to another. That, along with feeding the cats, has been my overarching life mission; it’s up to one far greater than I to evaluate how well I’ve done with it.

Over the rainbow

Early in our married life — or it might be while we were still courting (I don’t like the term “dating”, but that’s another topic for another essay; let’s just say that I’m a contrarian) — Diane bought me a mug that said, “Love is a rainbow of beautiful feelings”. Well, it is; I didn’t realize then that deep sorrow over the loss of the loved one is also one of those feelings, but in the first blush of young love, it’s probably best that the dark side of connection not be emphasized. It’s there, all right; the wedding ceremony includes the solemn lines, “until death do us part”, but most couples glide right past them. They’re too awestruck by the realization that the two are about to become one, and that’s likely as it should be. Each thing in its proper order; while it’s true that “in the midst of life, we are in death”, we don’t have to think about that all the time, though I do now.

I feel things very deeply, and always have. I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s an asset or a liability, and the likely answer is that it’s both. I can’t be stoic, and my upper lip has no stiffness whatsoever; indeed, we fought a war against the British over just this some centuries ago, and we won, just so you know. Yet, our culture, which goes through seasons of denigrating the vulnerable, is in such a season right now; anger (which is an emotion I very rarely experience) is celebrated, and fragility (a common feeling for me) is shunned. Well, again, to be a contrarian is to swim upstream against the current of the culture, if not the entire world; and sometimes I wish that my television set could be tuned to something other than the English Channel. Yet I have to be who I was made to be, in all my shame and glory; and an awesomely cute former cheerleader, who is in Heaven now, loved me for who I was, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion.

I’ve been called brave (no, really) by those who admire my willingness to be vulnerable and transparent, though (in the obligatory joke) some can see right through that. It’s taken me a long time to start believing that they might be right. Fifty years ago, John Powell’s little book Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am? was very popular among hippie wannabees, with its purple cover featuring a flower, and anyone who wore a mood ring and love beads wanted a copy. It hasn’t aged well, man, but it still has its point, which is this: we hide behind masks because we fear rejection. Alienation is one of the chief products of the Fall, and the answer to it is reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18); and that ministry is one of the highest callings of the believer. We need to be reconciled to God and to one another; and sometimes, as I posted on social media the other day along with a picture of me holding a stuffed domesticated South American camelid, “I don’t know why people can’t just get a llama each other.” The llama, whose scientific name is Lama glama — I love truth in advertising, don’t you? — is said to be a social animal who likes to live with others, or so I’ve herd. Their wool is soft; it contains only a small amount of lanolin, but we all do what we can with whatever amount of lanolin we may possess. Llamas can learn simple tasks after a few repetitions, and some day, I hope to be able to do the same. It’s slow work.

I don’t want to be critical of those who emphasize toxic positivity as a strategy. I am critical of them, but I don’t want to be, which is what is known as progress. The problem with toxic positivity is that it’s a form of lying, which is bad. As I’ve said repeatedly in the past, we have to call things by their right names; neurologically, it’s simply not true that a smile is just a frown turned upside down. If it were, normally contented gymnasts would become despairing when they turned a somersault, and that’s not so, though thinking about this makes me positively dizzy. No, our emotions are what they are; they shouldn’t control us, but neither should we deny their existence, because they rightly demand a place at the table. “Would you like to start off with a beverage?” I ask them. If they ask for a beverage of which I don’t entirely approve, such as absinthe, I usually suggest an alternative. “Would Pepsi be all right?” I ask. “Would paying the bill with Monopoly money be all right?” they respond, in a surly tone.

For months after Diane died, the only Bible verse which I could relate to how I felt (not what I thought) was Psalm 88:18: “You [God] have taken from me my lover and my friend; darkness is my only companion.” The psalm was originally a song, to be performed to the tune called Mahaloth Leannoth, meaning “the suffering of affliction”; and it probably wasn’t a popular choice on hymn request night at the Temple. But it’s part of the inspired text for a reason, and the reason is this: sometimes life feels just like that. And it’s actually a reverent lament, though a dark one: the psalmist rightly attributes his loss to the sovereign will of God, not to some impersonal fate or to the machinations of a political party. God’s purposes are redemptive and restorative, but sometimes we experience a severe mercy; and we don’t have to pretend to feel anything other than what we do feel, though our emotions (like our thoughts and our actions) need to remain submitted to our moral and spiritual commitments.

Well, we don’t choose our feelings; our feelings choose us, and we cope with them as best we can, applying lanolin if we happen to have any, though supply chain issues remain a constant challenge. Responsibility is a two-step process: (1) Who am I? (2) What am I going to do about that? Of course, the details are the problem; all things seem simple when viewed from a distance, like the Apollo moon landing, which also had only two steps: (1) Go to the moon. (2) Get back safely. But sometimes, Houston, we have a problem. NASA is attempting a new lunar venture, and they couldn’t even get their rocket engines to fire this morning; I suspect this says quite a bit about the trajectory of our culture, which I’m swimming against, as noted earlier.

Good writers, some of whom I’ve actually met, circle back at the end of an essay to something they introduced in the first paragraph, so readers can marvel. “You can make a circle!” they exclaim, happily. “Wanna get together and make some other geometric figures? I’m free next Tuesday!” I noted my modest skepticism about the construct of dating, and last week I read an article about the book Outdated, which expresses the same sentiments; I have to admire the bravery of an author who would give his book a name like that. “By the time you receive your copy of my book, it will be too late!” Well, it’s said that generals are always fighting the last war; but, the last time I checked, all is quiet on the Western Front, which is located roughly next to Poniatowski now, where the troops are gathering, both of them, awaiting their orders. Each thing in its proper order, I remind them.

The cobweb chain

When Diane was a young girl, she loved watching the then-popular television series Dr. Kildare, starring Richard Chamberlain. Many a starry-eyed female viewer of a certain generation sighed over him each week, dreaming that one day she would grow up to marry a doctor, which Diane eventually did, though “not the kind that can do you any good”, as they say in the faculty lounge. In the fullness of time, Chamberlain aged from being a teen idol to playing an occasional bit role on the program Leverage, since he no longer had any. First we fade, then we fall; and so it happens to us all.

The program taught me many things, including the fact that there are two main paths to success in life: one can either be stunning, like the young Kildare, or irascible, like his aging mentor Dr. Gillespie. I leave it to you which path I took; two roads diverged in a wood, and whatever. But I also learned that motivations matter: idealism trumps materialism, for instance. I see your flashes of brilliance, and I raise you some perseverance and some tenacity. In the end, character is the essential thing; or at least it was in 1961, when the show premiered, to a chorus of preteen swooning. Each episode ended with the signature song “Three Stars Will Shine Tonight”, which Diane liked, so we finally bought a copy of it, in that halcyon era before streaming and downloading. I hope that star of love will shine down on you, too; the other two stars in the lyric have mostly gone supernova now, I hear.

One memorable episode was titled “The Cobweb Chain”, from which I stole the title for this essay; it’s not plagiarism if you admit it, they say. By “they”, I mostly mean people who are serving a prison sentence after being convicted of copyright infringement; but just because lesser mortals lack plausible deniability doesn’t mean that I do. In that episode, a fellow intern — one has to be patient in life, and each thing intern — from India was struggling in his career, because the episode needed a plot twist, and the empathic heartthrob Kildare was determined to help him. “Why do you want to become a doctor?” he asked, and his colleague told a long, sad story about how no one in his village had any access to medical care, so they scrimped and saved until collectively they had enough money to send him to America and to medical school, and he couldn’t let them down. “I don’t even like medicine,” he said, looking surprisingly like some dentists whom I have known over the years, “but I know my duty.”

He then told a supposedly famous story, probably actually written by Dalton Trumbo, about a monk who was meditating in a cave, and while he was doing so, some spiders wove a web around him. Dust thou art, after all, but he didn’t; and so when it was time for him to move on, he found that he could only move if he destroyed all on which the little arachnids depended, and so he decided to stay where he was. Inspired by this, I don’t vacuum in the basement any more. I got the point, though; no man is an island, and none of us lives only for ourselves, or at least we shouldn’t. We have to consider our impact on others; and in return, the web of interconnection defines who we are. We were made to live in community; and at last, I am nearing the point of this little essay.

We need one another. I’m who I am today because of my beautiful Diane; and for a long time after she died, I feared that I would lose myself completely. Well, in the end, I didn’t; but it has been a long, slow slog even to begin to feel that I am still a person of value, though I am. Having a reason to go on is very important; and I am reminded of Viktor Frankl’s stern insistence that we can live with suffering, but not with meaninglessness. I’m here to serve others now; the impact need not be huge, but it must be real. I hope to end like David, who, “when he had served the purpose of God in his generation, fell asleep”. Well, I have miles to go before I sleep; but I took a brief nap this afternoon, because I’m old now.

A little umbrella

When I was young, I used to go to the circus. Not often, but sometimes. There were clowns, and animals of various species that would be treated more humanely today than they probably were then (Diane and I cared a lot about animal welfare), and trapeze artists, and a nattily dressed fellow who had one ring to rule them all.

There was usually a wire walker, who would cautiously traverse a narrow path high above the floor of the tent, using only a tiny umbrella to help maintain balance. From this we get the phrase “tightrope walk”, which means a delicate, difficult balance between opposing forces or priorities. If you are a tightrope walker, you really don’t want your stage name to be Eileen Sideways.

This is a symbol, but a person’s reach should exceed their grasp, or what’s a meta phor? I’ve been talking with my friends recently about the maintenance of healthy boundaries, and both of them agreed that this can be difficult. It’s hard because if you are too strident about your limits (making what sounds like an ultimatum), you can alienate friends and even lose one of them. That would cut my friend list in half, if I have the math right. On the other hand, you don’t want to buy friends by compromising on your core values, or suppressing your own feelings and needs. In between lies a narrow zone of sanity, which is legally protected by the famous sanity clause, which is unevenly enforced, though the risk of finding lignite in your sock drawer is a powerful deterrent. Oh, just pretend that you find me amusing. I’ll pretend to believe you, and I can move seamlessly to the next paragraph.

Our culture likes to disagree about things, and one thing about which it often disagrees has to do with the nature of legitimate boundaries. Predictably, I’m not taking a side on this, but if I had to essay a point of view, I’d begin by noting that in many respects, people have the right to run their own lives. Sometimes they run them right into the ground, but that’s the price of autonomy (some assembly required). There are, of course, exceptions; I pay taxes, though I don’t always quite want to do so, and I obey the speed laws, which conveniently allow me to annoy drivers behind me, and when they seem sufficiently irate, I leave my left blinker on.

The standard advice is that people have the freedom (politically, anyway, even if not always morally) to do what they like as long as they’re not harming anyone else. I find that too simple for a variety of reasons, which is a tactful way of saying that this is wrong. However, it has a point; it’s not totally wrong, and indeed it is difficult to be totally wrong, though with practice, you can grow ever nearer to the theoretical limit. Unless there is a moral imperative involved, people should, I believe, enjoy wide latitude (it’s widest at the equator) to chart their own course in life. As King Darius once noted, one person’s Mede is another’s Persian; we don’t all have to be the same, after all. I like to drink coffee, and others prefer river sludge, and it’s all good. Those who get annoyed at insignificant human differences might want to consider that they are at substantial risk of losing the one remaining friend they likely still have.

I also believe, though, that competing values and priorities can often (not always) be negotiated in a way that allows a relationship to survive. If I like Mexican food and you like Chinese food, we can compromise on the cuisine of Mozambique, which is about halfway in between, geographically at least. According to Wikipedia, the cuisine of Mozambique features cassaba root, cashews, coriander, millet, and piri-piri sauce. I like cashews quite a bit, so this seems a very acceptable compromise to me. Negotiation requires some flexibility, a decent respect for the wishes of others, a fair bit of honesty, and a roughly equal power dynamic, and is best served with the aforementioned piri-piri sauce, derived from the malagueta pepper. The word “malagueta” comes from a root meaning “your mouth will never again cease to feel as if you had just swallowed a blowtorch”, and the sauce takes your mind off whatever disagreements you might previously have had with your negotiation partner. This is known as a distraction technique.

I tend not to set a lot of boundaries, except those that regulate my own behavior, which I follow assiduously, being a ruthless self-critic, and intensely devoted to my moral integrity, for which I’d even forswear a malagueta pepper. What others do is of far less concern to me, though I am saddened when people won’t digitize their photos, but I don’t insist on even that. I bring it up when it seems appropriate, which coincidentally is always, but I don’t insist on it, being familiar with the law of diminishing returns. If you don’t like pixels, then you don’t, and it’s the land of the free, and the home of the exponentially terrified, because photographic prints can be lost or destroyed, whereas the cloud is forever.

In any event, let a smile be your little umbrella.


Back when I was still teaching, I used to begin a unit on Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development by distinguishing between reversible and irreversible processes. Examples of reversible processes are freezing water and turning it into ice (if you change your mind, you can melt the ice and turn it back into liquid water), or setting something down and then picking it up again (which you can do repeatedly at will). Examples of irreversible processes are baking a cake (it’s impossible to unbake it again) and shattering a glass (you can’t unshatter it, though you can try to glue the pieces back together).

I then asked students why some processes are irreversible, and obtained a sea of blank stares in return, which happens to me a lot for some odd reason. The answer has to do with entropy, which involves the fact that physical systems inherently tend toward increasing disorder. You have to expend energy to clean your house, as I’ve been doing this week, but you don’t have to do anything to unclean it; it uncleans itself, and becomes less and less ordered if you do nothing.

Sadly, this is why time flows in only one direction. You can age, but you can’t youthen. You can reach the future (though you can’t accelerate the pace at which you’ll get there), but you can’t get back to the past. Physically speaking, death results from entropy; the body parts apart, losing its functionality, and mere mortals can’t reverse that.

But in our minds, we can do the physically impossible with ease. I can imagine unbaking a cake, unsmashing a glass, getting younger every day, returning to the halcyon days of 1985 (when Diane and I were married). These things can’t be made to happen in the outer, physical world. But they seem feasible to the imagination; and in one sense, grief is about trying to reverse or undo the death of a loved one, and though it can’t be done literally (not yet), it can be done metaphorically.

This is why I was utterly obsessed with finding and digitizing and collating pictures of Diane, and saving them to the cloud, in the early days after her death. I gloriously found over 650 pictures of her, from her baby picture to the last picture I took of her the day before she died. They are precious to me now, and when I can do so without tears, I look at them, and remember the glory of ordinary days that we shared. They were ordinary because they were ordered; the two words come from the same root.

My red rose has turned to white now, and my awesomely cute former cheerleader is in Heaven now, where I can’t (yet) reach her. But I still buy her love tokens, and do other romantic things for her, not knowing whether or not she is allowed to see them (I hope she sometimes can). Today, I bought her a book of illustrated love poems (suitable for a child, but lovers are like children to one another), such as, “You’re my special spelling bee, it’s you that I adore. I’ll spell it out, without a doubt: I couldn’t love you more” (with an accompanying picture of two bees looking adoringly at one another). Overly sentimental, I know, but that’s what I need now at times.

These things don’t bring Diane back physically, but they return her to me metaphorically. They help me to feel that she’s still with me in spirit, and then I don’t feel quite so alone. It’s lonely, being a sad widower; the days are better than they were a year ago, but they can still pass slowly, and I have to be careful not to let them devolve into purposelessness, the entropy of the heart.

Cleaning the house, my vain attempt to hold back the inevitability of entropy, has occupied my attention during the past week. I finally felt emotionally able to do this, and it’s been a whirlwind tour of activity. But the house is finally in order again, for the most part, except for the basement, where I keep the most entropic of our possessions. Old holiday decorations are there, and mementoes from the past that will eventually be displayed in some way (a display cabinet is currently on back order), and other things she loved and valued that I’ll never discard. I am slowly figuring out how to arrange the things of value, and I’ve discarded a lot of detritus that has no emotional or practical significance, and which didn’t spark joy at all, but rather a sneezing fit as I swept up the dust that permeates the nether regions.

Symbolically, this is all a form of what Freud would call undoing, I suppose. If I get the house in perfect order, will Diane come back? Well, no, but it feels as if getting my physical environment in order is a metaphor for getting my life in order. I can’t eliminate my loneliness, but I can organize the pantry. I can’t bid love return, but I can alphabetize my books. It’s a sort of holding pattern, but it’s one I need.

The cat, who joyfully adds to the overall level of entropy in the house by kicking litter out of the box each day, is sleeping beside me as I write these words. She doesn’t really worry about the inevitable heat death of the cosmos, though sometimes it bothers me. But I believe that there will be a new heaven and a new earth; the great reversal, the glorious eucatastrophe, will arrive at last, when all things will be made new. There will be no more unwanted dust, and our hopes and our glasses won’t get shattered any more. I’ll see my beautiful Diane once more, and in our duplex mansion, everything will be self-cleaning, world without end. Until then, I sweep, and I weep.

Worthy of the calling

“They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.” (Heb. 11:37-38)

Diane has been gone from the circles of this world for some fifteen and a half months now; and though I think of her daily, and will love her always, and often yet cry over her, my grief has slowly been transmuted. I knew this was going to happen; and though at first I feared it, in time I have come to accept the inevitability of that. It’s a strange process; C.S. Lewis wrote of it when he told of the tragic loss of his wife Joy, who surprised him, as Diane did me so long ago.

William Worden, an influential grief theorist, speaks of “relocating the deceased”, and that is what is slowly happening to me now, whether I will or nill. This is, of course, a metaphor. Diane was in Heaven the instant after she died; to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, Paul tells us. Whether she is changing now or not is a question beyond my capacity to resolve; let theologians debate this, for it involves deep questions of the relationship between time and eternity that we mortal humans can’t really fathom. But I am changing; I don’t always like that, but I can’t stop it. Time’s river continues to flow; and while my connection to Diane is permanent, the nature of that connection, it appears, is not.

Worden explains it this way: “to find an appropriate, ongoing connection in our emotional lives with the person who has died while allowing us to continue living”. That’s wordy, too long for a bumper sticker, and it is too clinical for my taste. The reality is far more ambiguous, fuzzy and fractal. All my specific memories of Diane, though intact, are blending together now, in a bouillabaisse; they are becoming a synecdoche, the part that contains the whole, or like a hologram, in which each fragment recapitulates the entirety. She’s not more remote, but she is someone I can no longer wholly contain in my finite understanding of who she used to be.

Dante wrote of his great love Beatrice that way in the Divine Comedy, in words also quoted by Lewis. Thankfully, in these days of search engines, I didn’t have to struggle overmuch to find the relevant passage, which goes like this:

Thus I implored; and she, so far away,
Smiled, as it seemed, and looked once more at me;
Then she turned her gaze to the Eternal Fountain.

Well, Diane may or may not be able to see and hear me at times; on the slender thread of Hebrews 12:2, I think that sometimes she may be allowed to do so, though I can’t be certain. Our song (every couple in love should have one) was “Someone To Watch Over Me”, the Linda Ronstadt version of the famous torch song; I tried to watch over Diane in life, and I sometimes think she is allowed to watch over me now. I would also sometimes sing to her the rather obscure song from the 1950s, “Smile For Me, My Diane”, and I think she probably smiles at times when she thinks of me; I hope she does. But most of the time, she is probably focused on the Eternal Fountain; and it should be so. Just as we have borne the image of the earthly, let us bear the image of the heavenly. But, for me, not yet.

So I am trying to live a life that she would approve; one that will make her happy, because it makes her Savior happy. We’re told that, while salvation is free, discipleship is costly; and there is one greater than Diane whose smile I’m longing to see, in the hope that he can look at my life and say, “Well done”. I can’t know that yet; there is a categorical distinction between entering the kingdom (which is by grace from first to last) and inheriting the kingdom (which requires faithful obedience). Well, it is required of a servant to be faithful; and I try to be, though we all stumble in many ways, and some days are better than others.

Diane isn’t indistinct; but she is high above me (she’s so lovely), and I slog through the marshes of the Greater Brokaw Metropolitan Area, dreaming of her and yet necessarily trying to build some kind of a life that will honor God in the here and now. It’s slow work; but I know that my awesomely cute former cheerleader is cheering me on. Smile for me, my Diane.

Letting go: A primer

I’ve been working recently on letting things be what they are. I’m amazed at how difficult this is. Of course, I agree with Reinhold Niebuhr (the author of the Serenity Prayer, though almost nobody knows now who he even was, and such is fame) that, when one can and should change something, one needs to find the courage to do that. But most of the time, when it comes to other people — cats are rarely the problem — one either can’t, or shouldn’t try.

In the first place, people have complicated reasons for not wanting to change. In a famous classic movie Diane and I liked, Mister Blandings Builds His Dream House, the protagonist buys some land and hires a group of hard-bitten but quirky and somewhat clueless laborers to tear down the ramshackle house that was on that property and prepare to build a new one. The film is a little bit outdated, as am I, but we thought it funny. In one memorable scene, a small rock is in an awkward location, and Blandings asks for it to be removed. “It might not be a boulder,” said the contractor. “It might be a ledge.” Blandings didn’t know what a ledge was. “It might be rock that runs underground for miles,” the contractor explained patiently, “and then we’d have to blast.” “What do you mean, blast?” exclaimed Blandings, upset. “What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?'”, said his wife, helpfully. “It means he’d have to use dynamite.”

Well, some people don’t want to use dynamite on their lives, you see. Indeed, the word “psychodynamic”, which describes Freudian depth therapy, comes from the same Greek root (dunamis) as does the word “dynamite”, and can be just as unpredictable in its effects. In the end, Blandings left the rock in place, and learned to love it. Good call.

In the second place, it’s hard to distinguish between excuses and reasons. One reason why it can be futile to give advice is that people can be very good at finding problems with any proffered course of action. “Why don’t you pay to have the work done?” “Well, it would be too expensive.” “Well, why don’t you do it yourself?” “Oh, my health is too poor to do that much work.” “Well, why don’t you move to Ganymede?” “Gosh, I’m afraid of cryovolcanism!” This becomes an infinite regress, a doom loop, and the goal of the objector is to get the advice-giver to run out of ideas, so that the objector can see, “You’re not so smart after all, are you?” It saves a lot of time to say that phrase right at the point when you are meeting someone new, actually. The objector hopes to be able to claim credibly that their problems are insoluble, so that they have permission to remain stuck. Well, just say that. “Thanks, but I enjoy being stuck.” Many people take this as an invitation to change the subject, which it is. “How ’bout dem Packers, ya hey dere?”

For these and other reasons, I’m trying to take seriously the advice that John Morton Robinson wrongly attributed to Job, though it’s actually a variant reading of Psalm 49:7, written by an unnamed son of Korah: “No one can deliver his brother [or sister] unto God”, which is a theological way of saying that it’s useless to try to change someone who doesn’t want to be changed. I’ve kept track of the number of people who have accepted any advice from me in the past year, and my current figure of zero is, it appears, a theoretical minimum.

But, of course, I know what other people should, or at least could, do. So it’s hard to let go.

I’ve written before about the fact that in the well-known verse “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), the verb often translated “be still” (or “stop struggling” in some translations), raphah, literally means “loosen your grip”. There’s a famous apocryphal story that suggests that some species of monkeys, who are said to like coconut, can be captured by placing a coconut on a pole and carving a hole in it just barely large enough for the monkey’s hand to fit, then placing some shredded coconut inside. I like sweetened coconut, which is sold under the name “angel flake”, which I sometimes call the cat now: sweet but quirky, like me. Anyway, the idea was that the monkey’s hand, once filled with the shredded coconut, couldn’t fit back through the hole. So then monkey trappers (a declining profession) could walk placidly up to the monkey, shackle it, and then smash the coconut. The monkey could have escaped this dire fate simply by relinquishing the shredded coconut, but in the parable, they never did. Well, I don’t know if actual monkeys do anything like this. But actual humans? All the time.

Yet, I’m trying. And there can be a lot of peace in creative relinquishment, but it takes faith and trust. I genuinely desire to let God have his way in my life, unconditionally, and without mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I’ve told him so, sincerely. I’ve given him a blank check. Yet in dark moments, I think, “But what if I never get any coconut?” It’s a slow process, but I’m getting better at it.

Defense mechanisms and personality type

A funny thing happened to me on the way to developing a series of short videos on grief and loss for a proposed in-person grief support that I hope to roll out this autumn at my church. Well, it wasn’t that funny. But it involved something that seemed funny at the time, which is a paradox. This was a “teaching moment” for me (meaning that I was the one being taught), so let me elucidate.

This will be a transparent sort of post. However, I am leaning into transparency and vulnerability in the aftermath of Diane’s death. I have to risk being who I am, in all my shame and glory, though it entails the risk of discovering that some people, after having gotten to know me, won’t like the person they’ve gotten to know. Yet, the alternative is pretense, which is a counsel of despair. We have to be who we really are, and call things by their right names, and then (sometimes) good things happen. And if they don’t, at least we’ve been honest.

I really enjoyed making the first five of these ten-minute videos, and there was a lot of valuable content in them distilled from the pain and desolation of my own loss, and of my life now every day without my awesomely cute former cheerleader by my side. I’m an academic, but I worked hard to present the concepts in a way that wasn’t too highbrow, and for the most part, I think I succeeded at that. Yet, along the way, I found that my quirky humor, which runs in my family (my father was as uninterpretable as I am, and I think it’s somewhat genetic), was colonizing the videos, taking over, just as creeping Charlie takes over a lawn if you’re not careful. Too much of a good thing usually becomes a bad thing, but it’s easy to cross that event horizon without realizing it.

This has an easy fix, of course. I just have to re-edit or re-record those videos, which is frustrating and a bit tedious, though not impossible. It’s a bit annoying, but no big deal, really. I can’t so easily re-edit my personality, though; and there’s a part of me that thinks I shouldn’t have to, because my humor (when under the control of the God who orders my days) is part of me, a valuable part, and one that I need. It’s a difficult balance, and I’d like to talk about this in this post.

Since I’m a personality type enthusiast, I know the dynamics that underlie this, of course. It’s the tension between the iNtuitive and Perceiving preferences (which lead toward using too much humor, and too unconventional a style) and the opposing Sensing and Judging preferences (which lead toward being too deadly serious, and treating conventionalism as almost an idol at times). In reality, both tendencies are valuable (God is the author of diversity), but both need to be kept in balance. Diane isn’t here with me now to keep me in balance, and so I have to monitor myself, which is something like how George Washington took his own pulse on his deathbed. It is a lot of multitasking.

I had this experience throughout my academic career, actually. Some students (those who were iNtuitives and/or Perceivers) found me absolutely delightful, and took to my courses as cats take to cream. Other students (those who were Sensors and/or Judgers) found me uninterpretable or, in the extreme, irritating. A few even thought I was making fun of them, which I would never do; I don’t have a mean bone in my body. We all filter what others do and say through the lens of our own personality structure, and sometimes, we completely misunderstand. “When you said you couldn’t stand me, I thought you were flirting!” That kind of thing. It happens all the time, to everyone, though it’s more frequent in the lives of those like me who have less statistically frequent personality types.

Since I am an academic (those who live by the theory will die by the theory), this got me thinking about the differing defense mechanisms people use. We all have them, and there’s a fellow named Vaillant who has made a handy list of them that I’ve used in class on several occasions. Mine are actually on the healthy side of the spectrum (they never involve anger or hostility, which are danger signals), and they include excessive quirky humor, a tendency to use intellectuality as a shield, and a clear proneness to overidealize people I like or value. Diane kept me balanced in all these areas, but again, she’s not here now. Those who get past those defenses (and that’s not everyone) gets to see the real me, and when Diane did that, the fire of the Lord fell (1 Kings 18:28), and we were married. It was glorious, but of course, she’s in Heaven now, while I’m stuck here eight miles south of the Village Formerly Known As Brokaw.

Even as simple a word as “why” can be a trigger for misunderstanding. Academics like me (and iNtuitive-Perceivers in general) love that word, since it conveys curiosity and creativity and a desire to keep learning and growing and figuring things out at a deep level. But I’ve actually met a few Sensing-Judging types (very extreme examples of their type) who found the question insubordinate and offensive. I wanted to ask one of them what planet she was from, but sanity returned in time. This too is vanity and striving after the wind.

Well, we all long to be free to be who we really are, and loved and accepted for who we really are. Yet we all wear masks, because as John Powell noted half a century ago, we’re afraid to tell each other who we are. Alienation is our lot, after the Fall, and as C. S. Lewis noted, “how can we meet one another face to face, until we have faces?”

I’m working on it. It’s slow work.