She came walking down the lane past my window, tall, straight, shoulders squared, moving with confident strides, the picture of health and confidence.
She couldn’t possibly imagine what it feels like to be unable to straighten her shoulders. Where moving one leg out of bed requires a conscious effort. As does chewing every mouthful of food.
I don’t in any way censure that young woman. She’s kind, personable, empathetic. But we – generally speaking -- cannot imagine what we haven’t experienced, even indirectly.
Even if we experience disability as a result of an injury or illness, we tend to see it as temporary.
The reality of not recovering, never recovering, is beyond us.
I see those symptoms daily, as my wife’s health declines. I know them, but I don’t know what they feel like. Not yet. Until someday it’s my turn.
We can only deal with our own experience.
I remember an intense discussion about baptism, at one of the United Church’s General Councils. The table group consisted mostly of older adults, the most common demographic in mainline churches these days. For them, baptism symbolized their love, their hopes, for their children. And by extension, for all children. Tears flowed freely.
The young people in that table group couldn’t understand. Because not one of them had children. Not one knew what it meant to love as a mother loves – what the Bible calls “womb-love”. They could only think in terms what baptism meant to them. As individuals. If they thought about it at all.
They could only recognize that the adults had emotions that were not yet part of their experience, that they could only perceive “through a glass, dimly,” as Paul of Tarsus once put it.
Can a caterpillar imagine being a butterfly? Can an egg imagine being an eagle?
Or, in a human context, can a dweller of the steamy Amazon imagine life in the frozen Arctic? Or vice versa?
Books and movies can inform, but we’re still limited by our own experiences.
Which can lead us – or me, at least – into the error of generalizing too broadly from our own limited experience.
The role of analogies
In a recent column, I questioned the belief held by many that we have immortal souls, distinct from our bodies. Ward Kaiser, an author/mapmaker/educator and retired minister, challenged my assumptions.
Suppose, he argued, that someone tried to convince an unborn baby that there would come another form of life. Where it would breathe air, not amniotic fluid. Where gravity was a constant drag. Where it had to look for food and physically insert that food into its mouth.
The unborn child, Kaiser suggested, would find that life impossible to imagine. Assuming a fetus can imagine anything. Even if it is true.
Analogies cannot prove anything, of course. But they’re useful tools. They can reinforce hunches and visions. And they can chip away at cast-iron convictions.
Of course, arguments based on reason and logic don’t prove anything either. If they could, science and philosophy would both have ground to a standstill centuries ago.
New factors keep appearing, and demand to be integrated into current theories.
So Ward Kaiser is not necessarily right. Nor I am necessarily wrong. But his analogy reminds me not to paint myself into an ideological corner.
Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Miryam Hammond endorsed the central idea in last week’s column: “As a college sophomore I came from the flatland of Indiana to Colorado to work at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park. During orientation we viewed a movie titled The Mountains Don't Care, which introduced us to the joys and the difficulties of hiking in the Rockies. That has been the ‘password’ I've shared with everyone new to the area -- you are responsible for your safety, etc., because, ‘The mountains don't care!’”
Doug Linzey took a different approach to the same thought: “Your conclusion that nature ‘doesn't care [about us]. It just is’ is very much to the point about our approach to global warming. All too often we hear about having to ‘Save the planet!’ No, we don't. The planet will be just fine without us. It doesn't care. What we have to be concerned about is saving the human species, and that means keeping the planet livable for us.”
Karen Bueno pushed my thesis one notch farther: “I'm a little old lady in Thornton, CO. I am also a theologian and a seminary graduate, in case that makes any difference. The [other] The little old ladies with whom I meet to study scriptures have named their God as the old man in the sky who treats them all individually, who reveals God-self when they have a happy moment, but mostly never when they have an unhappy moment.
“You came close in your article to naming the God of the Bible as one we have viewed as a being that controls us, either malevolently or benevolently, so I'm assuming that your image of God is not the old man in the sky.
“Rudolph Bultmann said it best for me: ‘There is a mysterious power, an energy, in this universe, beyond time yet working in it, which is in charge of humans -- and other parts of creation -- even when they think they are in charge. Praise God!’
“Or something like that.
“I have theological trouble when my friends describe a ‘God moment’ [only] when something wonderful happens to them.
Isabel Gibson picked on a pair of sentences: “Gravity is not waiting to punish you for falling over a cliff. A forest does not grow so that you can get lost.”
“I agree with the former,” she wrote, “but am not sure about the latter. Maybe that's part of the impetus to personify: Maybe we do it more where we're weak.
“Or maybe we're happier to believe that we're in relationship with a capricious, dangerously powerful entity than to believe we're just in it by ourselves.”
Steve Roney: “I wholeheartedly agree with your caution not to anthropomorphize inanimate objects. It is a growing tendency. Not just personifying mountains, but talk of the planet Earth as ‘Gaia,’ of ‘harming Mother Nature,’ of Nature having specific preferences and interests, or maintaining a ‘balance,’ of Science ‘knowing’ this or that, of this species being ‘more highly evolved’ as though evolution per se could have a plan or a direction. None of these, of course, are sentient beings.
“Fine to use this as metaphor, as T.S. Eliot does with his river, or when Carl Sandberg says the fog ‘comes in on little cat feet.’ But no, the river is not a god, and fog is not a cat.
“I do not think actual pagans made this mistake. They presumed a god who had jurisdiction over the river; they did not suppose this was the physical river itself. That would be absurd.
“I’m not in agreement, on the other hand, with the title of the book about ‘Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures.’ All mountains are non-Euclidian. Euclidian geometry deals with ideal forms on an infinite two-dimensional plane. No mountain could qualify. No physical object could qualify.”
Tom Watson twitted me (that’s different from tweeting me), “You say you couldn't resist a book subtitled Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures. I don't have any data to back this up but I suspect there are some who could resist.”
Bob Rollwagen explained, “There was a time when the leaders of the world -- as it was known to them -- thought that people being killed by a volcanic eruption was negative reaction of the gods to some action they had taken. Today we do not hold a ceremony to appease the gods; we try to live in a safer location. Now we know how mountains were and are created.
“Giving human traits to aspects of their existence helps the unaware understand the emotion of the author at an instant in time, or the significance of an act the author did to insure success.”
Psalm 121 is one of my favourites, perhaps because I think of myself as a mountain person, not a flatlander. I’ve done at least four paraphrases of it. Within my current theology, I think I like the one below best, even though it personifies God in a way I decried in a recent column.
But I’d actually prefer that you look up the old hymn, “Unto the hills around do I lift up my longing eyes,” from the Scottish Psalter, and sing it to yourself until you turn it into an earworm for the day.
1 Let others seek their gods in the executive suite;
Let them put their faith in rising to the top.
2 I know where my help comes from;
It comes from the One who pervades heaven and earth.
3 This God lives in every aspect of creation;
As a doting parent tends a toddler, this God holds out a hand when you stumble;
God will not let you fall.
4 God will not play off one person against another.
God has no favorites;
God never tires of caring.
5 God's compassion is as constant as the attention of a bedside nurse;
6,7 No crisis can destroy you;
Even if you lose your loved ones, your career, your health,
if you retain your relationship with God, you will not be embittered;
You can emerge from the experience a better person.
8 Wherever you go, whatever you do, God will be with you.
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
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 (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)