So, the reason that I have not been posting recently has only a very little to do with the regular business and chaos of Christmas in a large family, and a great deal more to do with the fact that I have discovered the perfect holiday diet. It seems that the key to getting through Christmas without gaining any extra pounds is to contract a nasty flu from your children so that you will spend the most gluttonous week in the calendar eating nothing but yoghurt and drinking nothing but hot lemon toddies, usually cut heavily with scotch. I am not sure that this method will receive the approval of your local health board, and it does have the regrettable side effect of debilitating you to such a degree that you cannot possibly accomplish anything else useful, but I guarantee its results.
We went to the market this morning, in its current displaced location in City Hall, and I ran into Tom Abel, who is visiting Guelph this weekend, so he stopped by for coffee this afternoon, and then I read a little from Tolkien’s The Hobbit with my eldest son, and then I sat down to write a post on Heidegger’s What Is Thinking?, and then I will be skipping a Christmas party tonight, and so the day is proceeding at exactly the speed that I like best, and I am content.
I posted recently on what it is that I believe, and while I do not plan on making a habit of these kinds of posts, I have received enough requests for clarification that I feel it necessary to write at least once more on the subject. I will try to make this as concise and as clear as possible.
Many of those who know me best, my wife among them, responded to the list of beliefs that I posted by suggesting that it was misrepresentative in its brevity, that it did not include many of the other things that I do sincerely believe. There is some truth in this. My aim was not to list exhaustively the things that I believe, but only to list the things that I felt I could defend experientially, apart from a particular religious tradition. Though this list of beliefs would, of course, be heavily influenced by the Christian tradition in which I was raised and in which I still practise my faith, I was hoping to isolate the kinds of beliefs that I could maintain apart from the apparatus of this tradition.
If I lay these restrictions aside, however, I certainly do believe a good deal more than my previous post would seem to indicate. I do count myself as a Christian. I can cheerfully subscribe to all of the old Christian creeds, though I would question the biblical evidence for a strict doctrine of the trinity. I can even grudgingly subscribe to most contemporary Christian “statements of faith”, though I object very much to their deeply and ironically unbiblical bibliolatry. In short, the list of beliefs that I made in my previous post is certainly not exhaustive.
It was not my intention to obscure these beliefs. I hold them very closely and very deeply. Rather, I was trying to distinguish between these kinds of beliefs, which are entirely dependent on a particular tradition and a particular set of scriptures, and which are therefore impossible for me to verify even to myself, from a second set of beliefs that I can verify through my own experience, even if only to myself, even if only to some limited degree. It is not that I hold the one kind of belief more deeply than the other. It is that I hold them very differently. I arrive at them differently. They are two different ways of believing.
On the other hand, many of those who know me less well, who know me solely in a more academic capacity, questioned my list of beliefs from the other direction entirely, challenging the validity of any beliefs that are based entirely on unverifiable experience. There is some truth in this too. I readily admit that my experience can guarantee nothing about God, but it was not my intention to guarantee anything about God. I would even go so far as to say that nothing about God can ever be guaranteed by anything that is human. To ask for such guarantees is to misunderstand the nature of belief.
The nature of belief is not to guarantee but to bear witness. It must not say, “Look here, this must be believed,” because it always lacks this authority. It can only say, “Look here, this is what I have tasted and seen and found to be good, perhaps you might taste and see also.” Any belief that seeks to promise more runs the risk of becoming a fundamentalism in the worst sense of this word.
This is what I also believe. To this much I bear witness.
I was raised in a fairly traditional Christian family. There was much that I appreciated about this upbringing, and I still have an immense gratitude to my parents for raising what was, despite the faults that all families have, a loving and supportive family. Still, my beliefs, religious and otherwise, have changed a great deal from those that were taught to me, and as I have been confronted with raising my own family, I have begun to realize the need to articulate my beliefs more clearly. While my own thinking might tolerate a great deal of ambiguity about some of these things, a child’s thinking does not, and I am struggling to say clearly, concisely, and simply what it is that I believe.
What follows is a first attempt. It is not adequate for more reasons than I can list here, but I hope that it might be a place where I can begin thinking through these kinds of ideas with others who are like-minded. Though the following statements are very influenced by my Christian upbringing, they are only those that I feel that I can defend experientially, apart from any specific text or tradition.
1. I believe in a God who loves us, though I confess that I do not understand this love.
2. I believe in a God who comes to us because we are unable to come to God, though I confess that I do not understand how this is accomplished.
3. I believe that the only proper response to God’s love is to love God in return, and that it is only possible to love God through loving one another.
4. I believe that all true religion, in whatever faith it arises, leads to an increase of love, and that any religion leading to anything else, in whatever faith it arises, is false, absolutely.
5. I believe that God appears through the Christian tradition, through its scriptures and sacraments, though I suspect that this appearance is neither exclusive nor absolute.
6. I believe that the only essential theology is this: “God loves us, so we must love God through loving one another.”
As you will probably have gathered on your own by now, very few of my interests lie in the realms of science or mathematics, but this was not always the case.
I was very interested in botany and entomology in my early teens. During the summers that I spent with my father and brothers at the hunting camp on Manitoulin Island, I used to go for long walks, taking specimens of anything that seemed interesting. I would dissect, pin, arrange, bottle, and collect things. I would grind them and make infusions out of them and even paint with them as pigments. It was amateur science mixed with some strange instinct to herbalism and alchemy, all born out of months spent in the midst of nature without much else by way of distraction.
I was also fascinated by some of the more or less philosophical questions that mathematics raises. I can remember pondering for hours about what zero was, for example. If it was not a number, then I wanted to know what it was precisely, and this was my first flirtation with the idea that nothingness is actually necessary to thingness, not just as a placeholder, but in essence.
Unfortunately, as I have recounted to many people over the years, these kinds of interests were soundly beaten out of me by the very people who were supposed to be teaching me about them. One mathematics teacher, for example, came by my desk one day to ask what exactly I was doing. I showed her my notebook and explained that I was trying to work out the nature of zero. She told me to stop fooling around and start doing my homework. I never did any kind of mathematics again except under compulsion, and I dropped the subject entirely as soon as I was able.
A whole semester of memorizing the parts of a cell, for reasons that were never explained to me in any way, had a similar effect on my interest in biology, and my chemistry teacher the following semester actually told me, only two weeks into the course, that I should drop it because I was most likely to fail it anyway. I ended up taking Science in Society instead, where we baked bread and wrote poems about scientific principles and mostly did very little of anything.
Since that time, however, I have found any number of books that have appealed to the initial interest that I had in science and mathematics, as rudimentary and uninformed as that interest was. Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings was the first such book I can remember. Its story engaged me so thoroughly that it inspired me to read further about dopamine and to learn more about chemistry than I ever did in any class. Its attraction for me was that it situates a particular scientific problem in its narrative context. The reader is invited to identify with the scientist and with the patients and with the story. The science becomes meaningful because it is a part of a story, and it was this story and that caused me to go beyond Sack’s book to some of the more technical details of his work.
This is one of the reasons why I encourage my students to read Robert Adams’ The Land and Literature of England if they are interested in the history of English literature. As opposed to most history textbooks, it employs an interested narrative rather than trying to achieve some kind of disinterested objectivity. It revels in the anecdotal and the tangential, even when it admits that some of these things are a little suspect historically. It makes the historical study of literature into a series of tales that could be shared over a few pints, assuming that you are the sort of person who would share literary stories of any kind over a few pints, which I must assuredly am. I find, invariably, that this narrative of English literature not only entertains and informs the students who bother to read it, but that it also encourages them to go to the historical documents themselves. The story not only helps them to learn the basics. It also creates the desire to learn more deeply.
I am writing about all this now because I have just finished another of these books: Colin Tudge’s The Secret of Trees. The front cover of my edition proclaims that it is “a love-letter to trees,” but it is more accurately a love story about trees, a story that goes back millions of years and is by no means finished yet. Tudge does not at all shy away from the technical details of his subject, giving introductions to plant biology, natural history, and botanical classification, among other things, but neither does he dwell on them. They are simply included as elements of his larger narrative, and this narrative, written as only a lover can write, inspires its readers to love trees too. More than that, it gave meaning and interest to some of the mere facts of biology that were inflicted on me in highschool.
If some teacher, any teacher, had thought to tell me the story of how mitochondria, and other organelles as well, probably originated as independent simple cells and then invaded other single cells in order to form complex cells, this would have lent a whole lot more meaning to the apparently random shapes that I was labeling in my notes. If anybody had taken the time to explain how plants use hormones to respond to their environment, I would have had a meaningful point of entry into chemistry. Yet everyone was so busy trying to transmit information that they failed to make the information meaningful. Everyone was too busy, too scientific, too objective, and too educated to tell a story.
Yet stories are how we learn, certainly as children, and also, if we are willing to admit it, as adults. I understand that scientific papers and mathematical proofs serve their purpose, and I am not suggesting that we do without them. I am only arguing that these things remain mostly meaningless without the context of their stories, and I am also perhaps suggesting that the increasing irrelevance of academia for many people has to do with its inability to remember and recount the stories that give its work meaning. It is these stories that inspire people to learn more, inspire them to love what they learn, and so these stories need to be shared more often.
My friend Lauren Anderson has just posted about finding an old binder full of her juvenile writing, some of which she was brave enough to share, and it made me reflect on how much of this kind of writing there must be, lying in the neglected folders and binders and boxes of even the most accomplished writers. I found myself wondering what might happen if everyone were brave enough to share this kind of thing with each other, whether this might not encourage people to see writing and writers a little differently, a little more accurately, a little more humanly, and so I thought that I might also share some of my own highschool writing as a beginning to that end.
Now, my juvenile writing is certainly as horrible as Lauren’s, but it is horrible for all different reasons. Mine is horrible because I was reading far too much Coleridge and Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley and Shakespearean romance, and because I desperately wanted to be a Romantic poet, more than anything, which produced poetry of only the most painfully maudlin sort. Let me give an example from a poem called “The Prayer of Sir Gawain”. I am particularly fond of the affected archaisms and the constantly inverted, yoda-like, sentence structure:
A solemn vow to Knight of Green
I made before my King and Queen
That, if my stroke did fail to part
His mighty head and stop his heart,
Then when a year and day had gone
Should I my fullest armor don
And ride from Camelot away
To where that Knight doth hold his sway.
So reaching that unwelcome place
There give myself unto his grace.
So now I kneel ‘neath awesome fear
As quick the payment stroke draws near.
My mind does see the chapel there
That fearsome Knight’s most dreadful lair.
And in his hands an axe of steel
which on my neck I soon shall feel.
I see that helmless head before
My eyes, and here his roar
Forever ringing in my ears,
Forever playing on my fears.
Unfortunately, the melodrama of Sir Gawain seems almost restrained in comparison to these lines from the fabulously titled “I Hamlet Unto Thee Ophelia”:
These tears, great sobbing tears, adorn my cheeks.
Why did I stay away so long a time?
For Fate did take within those absent weeks
Your mind, soul, heart and very life betime,
Forever stole from me, your grace sublime.
Now my lament must seek to cleanse my soul
Of grief, deep seeded guilt which rends it now.
My inaction, only mine, made this bell toll
Which now decries dread Death upon your brow,
The icy grip of hell I did allow.
Now Death alone can give me my desire.
This life can never show to me your grace.
Right gladly will I face Death’s fearful fire,
For only in that dark and unknown place
May I look once again upon your face.
I could go on, but you get the point, or I hope you do, because I would be very pleased to have people share their own such youthful secrets with me in turn.
I wrote a post recently on the way that I read, but I have been reflecting since then that this description of my reading practise is grossly misrepresentative without a similar account of the way that I also misread. If it is true, as my earlier post suggests, that reading well demands the discipline to read properly, it also true, to precisely the same degree, that reading well demands the desire to read improperly. So, though I have already written about this desire in passing on earlier occasions, let me dwell on it now a little more fully.
To read according to desire is to read without regard for anything but the pleasure of the text. It is to approach the text like a lover, to seek it out wherever it is and wherever it might be. Those who read like this, who desire like this, who love like this, are always looking, through libraries and bookstores, through the bookshelves of friends, through the recommendations of others, through yardsales and thrift stores and fleamarkets. When they find what they are seeking, they hunger and lust for it, seize and possess it. They do not read it, but throw themselves into it, immerse themselves in it, like a madness or a desperation, and they find that they themselves have becomes seized and possessed.
This kind of reading does not remain distinct from the reader, does not leave the reader unaltered. It permeates the reader’s being, marks it and changes it, leaves the signs of love on it, leaves the scratches and bites of a ferocious love. The reader bears these scars with a wild and terrified joy, with a fearful pride, hoping and dreading that others will see the wounds and guess what has made them.
At night, lying in bed, the one who desires reading, the one who loves reading, wakes, haunted by the dream of the text, and rises and goes about the house, through the city, into the streets, and seeks, though it does not always find, and yet finds and embraces and does not let go and returns to the house and to the room and to the bed. The reader who desires is always going and seeking and finding and returning. The reader who loves is always loving again, and once more, and yet another time, but is never satisfied. This is the desire without which any practise of reading, any discipline of reading, will be empty and void.