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

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Published on Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Observing ourselves observing ourselves

Despite his scornful dismissal of his companion’s intellect -- “Elementary, my dear Watson!” -- Sherlock Holmes was not a brilliant thinker. Rather, he was an astute observer. He noticed things that others overlooked, little things insignificant in themselves but which, when put together, led to a startling conclusion.

            Observing is a key function of survival. It doesn’t refer only to eyes. Dogs observe with their noses. They detect hundreds of scents that we humans miss, scents that feed information about their environment, their safety, their food. Especially their food.

            Birds and butterflies sense the lines of the earth’s magnetic field to guide them on their migrations. Salmon taste their way through a massive confusion of waters, back to their original spawning grounds.

            We humans rely most heavily on our eyes and ears, to observe the world around us. We listen to conversations, to news broadcasts, to public address systems. We watch people clothing, their body movements, their interactions, for clues to what they’re thinking or feeling.

            In the days when I taught writing courses, I sometimes sent my students out to spend 15 minutes in silence, just observing. Almost always, they noticed five times as many things with their eyes as with their ears –and rarely noticed anything with their noses or tongues. 


Watching our minds at work

            Beyond that, we are -- as far as we know -- the only creatures who observe ourselves.

            Some of us do, anyway.

            We observe our own reactions. We recognize that we’re taking a casual comment personally. That we’re getting angry. Or looking for an excuse to dislike someone. That we’re falling in love. Or making fools of ourselves.

            It’s how we learn. We recognize our mistakes. Even more important, we recognize our successes, and what led up to them.

            Being able to observe ourselves gets us through some tough times. We manage to see this person -- me -- staggering through a devastating grief or loss. Rendered helpless by pain or stress. And in observing ourselves, we can detach ourselves and recover some calm, some peace.

            We can say to ourselves, “Yes, that’s me.” And at the same time, “No, that’s not me -- that’s a person suffering deep wounds. I can see it happening, but it doesn’t have to destroy the real me.”

             True friends, and true life partners, can do that observing for us, on our behalf, when we can’t do it alone. They help us find ourselves in a maelstrom of meaninglessness.


Don’t leave it to academics

            And sometimes, sometimes, we manage to observe ourselves observing ourselves. What kinds of things do we notice? How do we organize our observations? How do we infer meaning from otherwise random happenstances?

            Once upon a time, theologians and philosophers took the task of interpreting how we observe ourselves.

            But today, the firehose of information that sloshes over us through our screens and earbuds sweeps philosophers and theologians to the distant margins of our awareness. Does anyone still read Aquinas or Nietzsche -- and not just references to them?  Does anyone struggle through the convoluted reasoning of Karl Barth or John Stuart Mill?

            In businesses, devolution (supposedly) moved authority from the executive suite to the shop floor. In life, devolution moves the need for observing ourselves from the ivory tower to the coffee shop and sidewalk.


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 was rather abstract, I suppose. I argued that life and the universe could be seen as evidence of two contradictory forces, evolution and entropy. 


Steve Roney agreed “that there are two basic forces in the universe, creation and destruction, and I think you are not too far wrong in identifying them with God and the Devil respectively. Although creation and destruction do not so simply equate with good and evil. There is such a thing as ‘creative destruction.’ You see this yourself, when you celebrate science for being destructive—for rejecting or debunking established ideas.”

            Steve then went on to challenge my terminology: “It is confusing, however, to use the term ‘Evolution’ to describe the creative force, as this tends to associate it with the scientific Theory of Evolution, with which it has nothing to do.” [JT: I disagree here. Steve seems to equate the ‘Theory of Evolution’ only with biology. I think it applies to everything, including science, theology, and even mathematics.] This confusion is increased by using the scientific term Entropy for the destructive force, which naturally leads your audience to suppose that the scientific concept is meant in both cases. Nor is entropy really the same as destruction. Gold, true love, honesty, iron, and diamonds, for example, are valued precisely because they are so entropic in nature: that is, they do not change. ‘Creation’ and ‘Destruction’ would be clearer.”


Ruth Shaver got my point: “I have found it both amusing and disheartening that many of the branches of Christianity which deny the Theory of Evolution are the same branches which embrace ‘Evolution of style’ to present their version of the Good News (e.g., music styles that match the popular music of the day, adopting video and production values familiar to the people they want to attract, etc.). Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations which do, to a greater or lesser degree, embrace the Theory of Evolution have not responded to Entropy the same way, instead allowing it to gain great foothold. 

            “I love traditional music and liturgy, but I am aware that as an invitational offering, that isn't what will attract many people in younger generations (including my own Generation X). I think the only message that is immune to both Evolution and Entropy is that God loves us ALL and always has; it is both how we share that message and our understanding of who is included in ALL that needs to Evolve if we are ever to live peaceable together in a multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, open, affirming, and multi-religious world.”


Tom Watson: It seems to me that choosing Entropy is wholly pessimistic: Everything is going to hell in a hand-basket anyway so why bother. And there are religious groups that use this as a springboard to claim ‘but if you're with us you're one of the chosen and therefore will be taken away and escape the hand-basket’ ending. The trick in life is to realize the truth in what you suggest at the end of your piece: The future will happen, like it or not, and will change everything with which we have been comfortable, but we can affect it in a positive way by being willing to find the comfort in the changes that are inevitable.”

            JT: I might add, and that we can affect it in a positive way by the choices we make daily, in life and in faith. 


Don Snesrud agreed that “We are to evolve, but I think of it as more of to be part of creation. The Creator has given me life. Part of that life is to create (as do so wonderfully). So to create in the broadest sense is to be creative and help other to be creative. I did this as a teacher and some of my students, I felt, were more creative than me. That made me -- excuse me using the term -- feeling blest.

            “So part of the evolutionary process for me is creation. Thanks for your thoughts on evolution, and, yes Jim, here’s to life and creation.”






For sheer joy, it's hard to beat a child's playground. That’s the metaphor behind this paraphrase of Psalm 150 (an alternate reading offered for this coming Sunday).


1          God has given us a glorious playground; 
let us have fun together!

2          Climb to the top of the stairs with your heart in your mouth; 
slide down the shiny slope with shrieks of glee.

3          Ride the swings higher and higher 
until you can reach out and touch the sky; 
swirl on the merry-go-round until your head swims.

4          Build dream castles in the sandbox; 
bounce on the trampoline and soar above your troubles.

5          Chase your friends in a game of tag; 
throw your arms around everyone in a giant hug. 


6          So, mayour games, our imaginings, our activities, 
announce to all that this is God's playground. 
God gave it to us to enjoy together.
Thanks be to God.


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-Poetrywhere 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.)

                  I posted a new poem there on Tuesday. 






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. The original website has been closed down, but you can still order the DVD set through Wood Lake Publications, info@woodlake,com

                  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. She also has lots of beautiful photos.

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





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