Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Beyond human perceptions

I’ve never heard a snowflake fall. It must make a sound, even if, as an Asian parable says, a snowflake weighs “Nothing, or less than nothing.” And yet there must be a point of contact, and with it, a sound, however slight. 

            Even if human ears are not sensitive enough to hear it. 

            I can’t hear a worm, burrowing through moist soil towards a dew-dappled lawn. But a robin can. 

            A dog can hear a whistle way above my frequency range; at the other end of the frequency scale, elephants use a sub-audible rumble to communicate with other elephants out of sight over the horizon. 

            And I certainly can’t hear the grinding of continental plates re-aligning their relationships. Or the siren song of galaxies calling each other to unite. (We call it, unimaginatively, gravity, and describe the galactic dance as a collision.)

            Sound consists of vibrations. So does light. My eyes can see less than one per cent of the total spectrum from gamma rays to AM radio – just the visible rainbow of colours. 

            But that’s the human eye. Puffins, it seems, can also see ultra-violet light. Their absurdly large beaks glow with distinctive patterns in ultra-violet light. The only reason for having those unique patterns would be that other puffins can see them. 

            Similarly, cats of all sizes may be able to discern infrared light, to help them see in the dark.

            It makes me wonder if migrating birds can “see” the earth’s magnetic field, which is, to us, utterly invisible. 


On both sides of our size

            In her book, A God That Could Be Real,author Nancy Ellen Abrams explores some implications of our human limitations. We can only comprehend things that fall within a certain size range, she asserts, relative to our own size. 

            We can recognize, but probably not empathize with, tiny insects. We can see, and sometimes feel kinship with, elephants and whales. 

            But microbes and bacteria lie beyond our scale. We know of them only with the assistance of microscopes and lab tests. Similarly, we can reason that the earth must be spherical, but our own size precludes us from perceiving its roundness without going into space. 

            Therefore, Abrams reasons, a God who existed beyond our scale of perceptions would be, to all intents and purposes, invisible. Incomprehensible.

            We could only recognize such a God by his/her/its effect on our human-scale lives. 

            Just as we inferred, from observable effects, the reality of gravity and magnetism. 

            By analogy, if God existed as the entire spectrum of electro-magnetic frequencies, we would recognize only the narrow band of visible light – just as we are oblivious to the radio frequencies emitted by our cell phones that are constantly passing through our bodies. (And our brains.)

            The world I can see, and hear, and feel, is only a small segment of much greater possibilities. 

            None of that proves that God exists. But it does caution against writing off all other possibilities. 

            The reality of God – by whatever name you choose – does not depend on fitting our historic definitions.


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Last week’s column about putting your faith in a process brought some interesting responses. 


George Brigham wrote, “In my student days, studying ethics at the height of the Situation Ethics Debate, I learned that the means can NEVER justify the end. On the other hand ONLY the end can justify the means. This does not, however, justify any and all means. We need to seek to do the most loving thing in any situation. Discerning this can be far from easy, of course, but blind obedience to rules – be they the rules of the golf club or the ten commandments – can never be an excuse for producing an unloving end.


Tom Watson mused, “Seems to be a paradox here. You likely won't arrive at the best conclusion without a good process, but a good process won't necessarily guarantee the best conclusion.”:


Mary Elford found my column echoing her Sunday sermon: “Joseph's theological insight into God using for good, what his brothers meant for evil, and his proper human action occur together. Whether Joseph's decision to make himself known to his brothers allowed him to see clearly the hand of God in his life story, or if it happened another way, doesn't really matter. The end result is the same.”


Isabel Gibson moved a business application to a larger sphere: “In my work (developing and producing large sales proposals to meet hard deadlines), we relied on processes in a few ways:

·     To harness the collective knowledge and creativity of the group

·     To communicate completely, quickly, and easily

·     To prevent errors, individually

·     To check for & correct errors, jointly

·     To learn from our inevitable mistakes so we could do better next time

For some, yesterday's process was ‘the right answer,’ not to be changed. For others, yesterday's process was a guide that could be improved. That's how I see the corporate due-diligence processes that flow from legal requirements.  That's even how I see democracy -- the basic underlying principles are sound, but the execution needs constant attention.”


Steve Roney says he hasn’t written for several weeks, because he agreed with me, more or less. But things are back to normal. Steve wrote, “ To suppose the majority is always right is a logical fallacy. Of course it isn’t. Hitler was popularly elected. Consistent majorities in the U.S. South long supported slavery, and, more recently, racial discrimination. The point of political democracy is not that the majority is going to arrive at the best conclusions, but that since the people are sovereign, they have the right to govern themselves.

            This does not carry over to religion. Just as it would not make sense in a family, or a business. Nor would it be sensible to diagnose illness by popular vote, instead of relying on the expertise of doctors.

            “But you lose me in arguing that, if any given process fails to arrive at the ‘right’ conclusion, you have a right to ignore that process and impose your own version of what is ‘right.’ [Umm… did I actually argue that? JT] If any one person assumes that right, you have a dictatorship. Which might make perfect sense outside of politics. But if random individuals or groups claim that right, anywhere else within a system or process, you have chaos… Rather, if we disagree with the results of a process, we are morally obliged to work strictly within that process to seek to change that result.

            “Of course, we can also change the process. But only within the framework of some other, larger, established process. For example, if we dislike a law, beyond trying to influence or defeat the elected representatives who passed it, we can appeal to the courts on constitutional grounds. \If, in turn, we dislike the constitution, there are legal provisions for changing it. 

            “I trust in the case of the United Church, this is what actually happens. If some committee decision is overturned, there is an established process for overturning it, and established lines of authority. But that is not quite what you describe.”


John Shaffer went back two weeks to share his experience with birds and berries:” When I served a church in Spokane, the robins came for the mountain ash berries every spring. Even though we were Methodists, the birds were not teetotalers. They got very tipsy (drunk) on whatever was in the berries.  Fortunately, there were no cats to take advantage of the fact that for a while, they could not fly. Dozens of birds would be grounded.”






As my faith grows and evolves, I keep revised these paraphrases. Here’s the latest version of Psalm 99:


1          Raise your sights from the ruts of routine;
Look up, look up, to the Lord who if found in everything. 

2          For God is greater than any abstract theory, 

Than any set of principles or moral values. 

3          God embodies all that is right and good.

4          Whatever is true, honest, and just,
Whatever is pure, lovely, and admirable --
If it  deserves praise or commendation, it is of God. 


5          But we mortals keep our heads down.
Like ants at a picnic, we busy ourselves with crumbs
and miss the banquet.
God is too great for us to grasp. 

6          We know God through the lives of those who have known God;
They depended on God, and God did not disappoint them. 

7          Our spiritual ancestors stumbled over God's unexpected presence;
when they stubbed their toes, God forgave them 

8          because they were willing to learn.
God walked with them, guiding their feet. 

9          God has been good to us.
In God, we find the ultimate example
of how we should act towards others. 


            For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, I’ve started a webpage http://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry where I post (occasionally, when I feel inspired) poems that I have written. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email(no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca(If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have been blocking my posts because they’re suspicious of too many links.

                  Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                  Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                  Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet




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