the distributive middle

We have pitched our tent in the excluded middle and abdicated any responsibility to check things out.
~Fred Clark, in his recent post, "Reporting the controversy"


Under the leaden wings of night
I see this brood of melancholy
half-gods and half-men,
pitiable because they are neither
the one nor the other.

I grow afraid and turn away
from the bottomless pit of perfect
knowledge.
~Max Ehrmann, from "The Abyss of Perfect Knowledge"


Surely the cure for fear was not more fear.
~Lois Bujold, in The Warrior's Apprentice


Dad used to joke that if you were bad in a past life you had to live in New York, if you'd been good you got to live in Los Angeles, and you ended up in Chicago like us if they didn't know what to do with you. Weatherwise, I can kind of see the joke, except for how southern California catches fire every fall. But no country, no really big assemblage of people, I think, would be complete without somewhere that fills each of those metaphorical roles. New York, a place where cutthroat deals are brokered, heads are rolled, and heaps of competitors exist to be clawed out of the way. Los Angeles, a center of creativity, culture, fashion, and every kind of insanity under the sun, all inextricably mixed together so that what ought to be terrifying becomes, with just a little bit of distance, charming. Chicago, a place where the details are ironed out, the language clarified, the contracts drawn up, and the red tape wrapped up and stowed away in good order. A city of clerks, lawyers, accountants, go-betweens. That is the place where I feel most at home; those are the fallow fields in which I yearn to (metaphorically) dirty my hands. Not the undistributed, but the distributive middle. The place from which things hurry to their proper destinations. It's a role I feel proud to aim at, and if it started as reflex and self-defense, it became something else. The kid who was terrified of bats and muggers achieved his potential for good when he became Batman. I don't have the resources, athleticism or awesome secret cave necessary to become Batman. But perhaps there's something else awesome, another role yet to be named, for me to try.

And even though pity, like condescension, is a thing I am confident in despising due to intimate, omnidirectional familiarity, being pitied by peers who had no personal agenda with me had one very positive result. People, as a rule, do not pity those whose warps and flaws they consider irreparable. To be pitied disinterestedly, to be pitied with exasperation rather than dismissal, implied there was something I could do about it.

It's hard to describe what I've been doing with myself without sounding, to my own ears, like a complete bore or a complete terminology snob. I have a really, really good reason for being a terminology snob, though. It goes something like this list of, er, guidelines. Formulated in numbered style just now. It's an amalgalm of proverbs cadged from books, advice given by people, and observations carefully named long after I'd learned their right use. If you recognize a reference, good for you! I agree with and applaud your taste.

1. Anything is a weapon if you are determined to use it as one.
2. A weapon you don't know how to wield is a weapon in the hands of your opponent.
3. Whoever is not against you, is for you.
4. An ally is one who can both "shoot" (wield a given weapon) and "aim at your enemy" (understands your necessities well enough to know who else is your ally).
5. The mind is the only weapon; all other "weapons" are merely tools.
6. To name a thing is to define your relationship to it. Once you have outwardly expressed your understanding of a thing, that is how you will perceive it until you openly express a change in your view.
7. You pay most attention to that which you have named.
8. You store memories of those things to which you pay attention.
9. You approach new experiences based on what you remember.
10. The degree to which, and the ways in which, you adapt yourself to new experiences both reveals and shapes your identity. (You are what you do. Choose again, and change. Oh, and also Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.)

As an adolescent, my mind, my emotions, my memories, were things I did not trust. And thus felt I had to assume, till I could confidently name them otherwise, that everything inside me was a weapon in the hands of an opponent, visible or invisible. Furthermore I had no way to determine which persons, visible or invisible, were in fact my allies as opposed to my opponents, until I was able to restore the integrity of my organs of perception. To put a metaphor on it, you need to be reasonably sure you've been looking through a telescope and not a kaleidoscope before you step out of your cave to make the long, grueling journey across the desert.

Every embarrassing, depressing or otherwise broken thing I found in my psyche was in this sense a positive sign. One less piece of the machinery of my self that was liable to rise up and bite me when my back was turned. It's still frustrating and depressing, though, to discover one thing after another in myself that's smashed or clogged or so hopelessly slagged as to require a complete overhaul. Hence the most important guideline, best rendered in all caps:

IF YOU FEEL STUPID, YOU JUST GOT SMARTER.

(With its lesser-known corollary: if you never feel stupid, you are probably being very, very stupid indeed. Although, I hope you're all about to object, it is decidedly unhelpful if you always feel stupid.)

So. Onward and inward, to things tangled enough I'm not sure how to name them except in metaphor and generalization. Not quite right to say that cities are like people--they are a whole different order of organism, made of people, by people, but with their own strange kind of life. But people are surely like cities, like our ideas of cities at least, more so than is comfortable to admit sometimes. Many things go on inside us that are so very difficult to etch in the memory, prison in words, mark down on the map. The map which never quite matches the territory.

Religiously, I started out firmly planted on one side of the fence: belief. Then I flung myself over it (like a Californian!) into disbelief, in hopes that the grass on that side of the fence was a little less on fire. Much later I tried climbing back up onto the fence, seeking a better view. Only to find that the fence itself was little better than a polite fiction, a string drawn taut across the grass. The relationships between the names people use and the things to which they refer with those names are complex and not easy to unravel. That there are realities behind the names, that the things in which the thoughtful and sincere have invested their belief, have truths behind them, seems very likely. We're dealing here with matters where objective proof is off the table. So it's incredibly important to me to understand both my own subjective experiences and the subjective experiences of others as best I can. These are the experiences which shape our beliefs regarding our purpose in life, the attitude we should take about our place in the universe, the possibilities for hope. Our beliefs in this area feed directly into our operating assumptions about our identities, and those identity assumptions are the engine which permits the personality to take shape and to function at all. And the only primary-source knowledge that exists on the subject is inside living people. All else is hearsay.

Unfortunately (for me and my insatiable curiosity), the people who've invested belief most totally are also the ones most likely to fall into "A therefore A therefore A" descriptions when you try to get them to explain how and why they came to do so. Not that they're unwilling to share their experiences--very much the opposite! Rather, the difficulty is that, having chosen a reference frame, you have to move into it with them in order to make any sense of how they put it together. And once you demonstrate the ability to move within their symbol set to their satisfaction, they quite naturally assume that since you're inside their home paradigm you must already agree with them, so there's no point belaboring the obvious by explaining things which you clearly must already know and are simply too stubborn to admit.

On the other hand, the people most willing to pour out their innermost thoughts into any handy reference framework they are offered tend to be those who haven't thought through their own experiences or tested them to the point where they have any useful idea what they're going to do with them. People who may have heard of various symbol systems or structures of imbedded belief, but who through lack of understanding, lack of confidence, or lack of motivation, have not managed to put any of them to very much use. (You know that saying, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who say there are two kinds of people of the world, and those who don't"? If we do that with the people-types I'm describing here, I'd say I belong in with the people described in this paragraph.) They are like the data-tape spewed out by the little robot-demon in the Cyberiad. Every word of it, once properly understood, is a true witness of the person's worldview, and much of it would be extremely useful in the proper context. But since it has never been honed on the whetstone of any single perspective, the likelihood of the right knowledge cozying up with the right information (to therefore beget wisdom) can seem depressingly small.

In trying to understand the experience of belief, then, and not merely its function, my ongoing investigation faces some handicaps. The worst information sources are the best, the best the worst, in a sense. The thing, namely myself, with which I can take that information and combine it with knowledge (with metaphorically sexy results!) is in hopefully-diminishing ways as suspicious as the information itself. It has taken the better part of ten years to painstakingly reach that place where my judgment, such as it is, on those matters where I deem myself competent to give names, is something I am willing to trust.

I want to distinguish between belief, lack of belief, and disbelief.

Belief and disbelief are both positive, definite stances; they give the names, true and untrue, to the things they name. Once a personality's resources--faith, hope, love, and the mother of these, attention--have been committed to a positive stance, personality structures can be built on it. And a lot of those personality structures involve really important things. Such as the ability to have certain kinds of shared experiences with others whose selves are built on functionally identical beliefs.

Lack of belief indicates an attitude of information-gathering. Personality resources have not yet been invested in a name, a definite category of perception, a stable relationship. (Those three things are causally and functionally linked, if not identical.) The idea is that when observation and experience in favor of either belief or disbelief reach a critical mass, the personality tumbles over into the appropriate stance without a conscious application of will. If a conscious effort of will is necessary to push the personality into a positive stance, this means the individual is not actually convinced. They have conceded to the acceptance of the name of truth or falsehood without having, themselves, acquired the wisdom to rightly apply that name. They have, to translate it into the system by which I understand these things, placed the weapon of their own identities in the hands of someone else. Of whoever gave them that name, which they accepted without truly believing.

All this to say that yes, I absolutely have the ability to force myself back into my former belief. Or into a simulacrum of it, cobbled together from the ruins of that belief and the assertions and descriptions of others. But this is something I will not do. It is too important to force, to do half-heartedly. A half-hearted conversion is no conversion at all. It is, and please forgive the intimate metaphor, the spiritual equivalent of faking an orgasm. Something you only do when you have lost all hope of having a real one.

If it is in fact good and right and just for me to be a bride of Christ, I will not be the sort of bride who lays down on the marriage bed gritting her teeth and muttering "let's get this over with." So don't ask it of me. It would be repugnant and a disservice to both parties.

On to the question that a believing Christian must, in good conscience, always ask, even in cases where tact and wise caution restrain them from asking it out loud. What would it take to convince me? At this time, I have a very short answer.

An unambiguous religious experience. If the name of Savior-and-Lord is a name with something real and solid behind it, if it is something so infinite that I will never have to wisdom to bestow it, then I want it from the horse's mouth. To smash a metaphor.

I've had, as I mentioned in some previous posts, several experiences in my life to which I have given the name religious or spiritual experiences. (If not without some trepidation. If I were lazier or it wasn't important to me, it would have been equally possible to write these off as projections or imaginings simply because they are subjective. But I've been over and over them and I'm still of the opinion that there is a noticeable distinction between these and the ones I imagined. Though, obviously, I have yet to name the cause.) Times when I brushed up against--nouns, you might say. Person, place, thing, idea, or some weird amalgam of all four. Some I could definitively name opponents. A few, by their actions and the stamp of their presence, can be called allies. Some number involved those which were more difficult to qualify--rather like trying to decide if a rock or a tree is your ally or not. But an experience of this caliber in which the Great Big Thing of Refulgent Wonder and Unadulterated Joy came up to me in some way and said, "You should call me Jesus. That's my name, has been all along. Thought you should know." That would convince me.

Things that are unlikely to convince me, or any other person whose mind is not yet made up, include things the Jesus described in the stories did not do, to the best of my recollection. He did not threaten people with hell, even by reminding them obliquely that hell exists. In fact, from what I know of the Bible, unbelievers are described as descending into Sheol, the grave, or to outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The lake of fire is said to be for the devil and his angels, witches (described somewhere in Samuel, I think, as those who compel the souls of the dead to do things against their will) and Sodomites (and the defining wickedness of Sodom, according to Judges, was a predilection for gang rape without preference as to the victim's gender). Jesus did get pretty harsh with those who abused their religious authority to gain social power over others, but he tended to criticize them for their present evil deeds and only rarely went on to describe the future results of those deeds. He did not condemn people for breaking religious laws--even broke a few himself, when he judged the cause was just--but instead demonstrated his love and acceptance and urged them to do better. (If I can do it, you can do it!) He did not withdraw or shrink away in moral repugnance from people whose lives were steeped in distasteful acts or humiliating failures, but befriended them, ate at their houses, treated them as though they already were the people he saw dimly within them. Jesus did not sigh at and turn away and whisper over those who were being led astray. Instead he took people who had lost all hope, and helped them to see themselves through his eyes--as redeemable, as worthy, as wonderful.

Which is one of many reasons, many reasons I've gone into here and elsewhere, and some I've yet to name, that the idea of returning to Christianity in truth fills me with trepidation. The person in those stories is a damn hard act to follow.

7 comments:

Lorena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lorena said...

Wow! Trying to rap my head around this post. First, I thought it would be about wonderful Chicago or stereotyping cities. Then I thought you were sharing the wisdom you've collected through the years, but then suddenly, you switched to "believe or not believe?" that's the question.

It interesting to "see" someone figuring it out the facts of life out loud, as it were. I felt like Job sitting around with his friends talking about whatever.

Fiat Lex said...

Ach, I feel I've gone and not shown all my work, like my math teachers used to chide me about. The problem with writing a post over the course of a couple of days is that there are things in the middle of everything that I've turned over and over in my thoughts. Which, because I've worn down the rough edges with time, seem to fit right together.

I've added some connective tissue in the middle that might make it a little less, I don't know. Pontificate-y? Abstract? I'm best at poems, poems and lyrics, so that even though I don't think in pictures, it's always a loose tumble of one emotion-image after another. But in this one at least I'm pretty sure I got all the "images" down the way I mean them.

:) I am glad you found it interesting, and thank you for the helpful note!

Lorena said...

Hey, I'm glad you didn't take offense. I was afraid because I gave you feedback similar to what happens in a creative writing class. But in writing classes the reviews are brutal. I hope I never give anybody a review like that.

Amber E said...

"But an experience of this caliber in which the Great Big Thing of Refulgent Wonder and Unadulterated Joy came up to me in some way and said, "You should call me Jesus. That's my name, has been all along. Thought you should know." That would convince me."

If this is what you really, really want I will pray for it to happen. I have the joy and hope of salvation and want you to know that joy. It is strange to me the tormented twisty anguish that you seem to be feeling but how can I help. I am glad you are seeking answers.



"Things that are unlikely to convince me, or any other person whose mind is not yet made up, include things the Jesus described in the stories did not do, to the best of my recollection. He did not threaten people with hell, even by reminding them obliquely that hell exists." Okay, I will have to stop sending you greeting cards that say things like Happy Birthday, I love you, oh by the way Hell exists just so ya know, Laterz!" Ok seriously from my limited Bible scholarship I actually agree with you on the whole sheol vs. lake of burning fire thing. (No, I repeat, no relationship to the movie Joe vs. the Volcano). I believe you understand that people are trying to be kind. For example if you saw people walking past you into certain death (insert humerously improbably form of certain death here) even though it was their life and their choice you might point out 'that way danger, easy to avoid, go this way instead'.

Just please try not to overanalyze and think things. Analysis is good but your last couple have posts have seemed almost frenzied. Yes, eternal salvation is worth being excited over but remember. God is Love, you've read about that. Remember that fruit thing. Okay so it was talking about people being known by their fruit and a good tree brings for good fruit etc. I think God is like that too, the love of God does not bring frenzy and stress. (okay Mom, Pearl and I are reading a kind of cowboy up devotional that is about stuff like developing patience and character through hardship but that is different).

I like the thing is says somewhere in the new testament about "God does not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and a strong mind." I know you have a strong mind Viz and I pray for you to also have a spirit of power and love. Oh gosh, this is why I'm glad we read scriptures as kids, now I'm reminded of the perfect love casts out fear verse. Okay, I'm rambling back to your post.

"Jesus did not sigh at and turn away and whisper over those who were being led astray. Instead he took people who had lost all hope, and helped them to see themselves through his eyes--as redeemable, as worthy, as wonderful.

Which is one of many reasons, many reasons I've gone into here and elsewhere, and some I've yet to name, that the idea of returning to Christianity in truth fills me with trepidation." Golly, he just sounds so trepeditaion inspiring and annoying. Who is he to go around loving people and stuff.

"The person in those stories is a damn hard act to follow." So you want to follow that act? I am pleased to hear that. Perhaps you can encourage me to do likewise. That whole feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisioned stuff he instructed his followers to do is stuff I believe in but can be hard to remember when there is shiny cable and internet to be distracted by.

Fiat Lex said...

Hey Amber!

As we discussed on the phone, I am working on a proper response to you and will be posting it in the next day or two. I just, well, got distracted by shiny things. XD Hope you don't mind!

kisekileia said...

I like this post.