Thursday, July 30, 2009


Most of us have lamented, on more than one occasion, how unfortunate it is that our memory is so poor. When we hear about people that seem never to forget things, it’s hard not to be jealous. Everybody knows of an unmotivated truant who gets better grades than the sedulous student because he never forgets what the teacher says - even if he doesn‘t show up to half of the classes. It doesn’t seem fair.

But this is really only a minor part of the problem. Forgetfulness has much more to do with who we are than we think. It is one of the biggest limiting factors in our lives. Our ability to remember determines, in many ways, what we are and what we do with our lives. What we forget, on the other hand, determines in many ways how much we will be held back.

There is one particular kind of forgetfulness that is, by far, more important than all the others. It is the forgetfulness that we call birth. Unlike other kinds of forgetfulness, though, the forgetfulness at birth is evenly experienced by all of us. And, as often happens when everybody experiences something to the same degree (like breathing oxygen), we tend to ignore it.

But this is a mistake. Regardless of its universal nature, this forgetfulness can cause us a great deal of grief. If it were to disappear suddenly, our individual lives would be filled with rapture. Unconditional love would prevail. There would be no more problems of poor self-esteem. We would no longer be pre-occupied with social standing, with how we look, with how much money we make, or with all the things that we imagine will help us feel good about ourselves. Wars would cease altogether and we would be at peace with ourselves. In a word, life would be heavenly. And it would be heavenly because, in the eyes of God, we are His children and we are of great – even unimaginable – worth. The trouble is that we just don’t remember that we are.

Which is, of course, the way mortality was meant to be. Life here on earth, at least for the time being, is not intended to be heavenly. It is supposed to be a testing ground. And this forgetfulness is an important part of the test. It even has a name is some faiths. In the Judeo/Christian tradition it is called “the veil”.

The image of a veil is a fitting one. Veils hide things that are not meant to be profaned. In some cultures a women’s face is so considered. Our life before and beyond mortality – life that remains obscured and yet informs our most sacred longings – surely fits this image as well. Yet, interestingly, the Judeo/Christian veil refers specifically to one particular veil – at least it used to. That veil was the veil in the temple in Jerusalem.

There was actually more than one veil in the temple. Some of them were like curtains separating rooms and sacred places. But the one that was specifically referred to as “the veil” separated the Holy of Holies from the Inner Court. This was the most sacred place on earth. It was the place that only the High Priest could enter – and then only once a year. The New Testament refers to this veil as the katapetasmatos, or literally, “the place to draw near to heaven (or winged things)”. It is mentioned in the Epistle to the Hebrews as the focus (or anchor) of a Christ-centered life (Hebrews 6:19).

This veil is not like other veils we are used to. We can’t just remove it and expect to see clearly. Neither can we just exercise, get a good night sleep and then wake up remembering what we have forgotten for many years. The veil of forgetfulness is intended to remain with us for as long as we sojourn in mortality. And yet remarkably, there are those that manage to sense what is on the other side anyway. I’m not referring to those that have near-death experiences – going through and returning from the veil. Such cases are certainly noteworthy but they seem so remote from most of our own experience.

There is another way to understand what lies beyond – to get a glimpse of what it means to be a child of God in this life and in the eternities. This other way is through the window known as charity.

By charity I don’t mean the giving of money to the poor, or the love that we have for our family and close friends. This kind of love is one of the greatest experiences of life but it is, nonetheless, a part of this life – of mortality. It is in our genes. Charity, or the love of God, is more than this. It is the great gift of the spirit that is vouchsafed to us when we give all of our hearts to God. Through this window of charity we see and understand the great worth of each of our Father in Heaven’s children. Through this window we are filled with love for all whom we see – even, remarkably, for our enemies. When we look through this window we begin to understand just how valued we are as members of this divine family. It is only through this window that we can ever hope to get beyond the constraints of this fallen world – constraints that are necessary but inseparable from so much sadness – even to the desperate angst of existential despair.

The veil is quite misunderstood
When it is cast before the mind
But it is not the brain that worries me
As does another kind of memory
That sunders from the heart
Belief in Heaven’s pedigree

How much grief could be avoided if our criminals – even our angry neighbors and coworkers, for that matter – could somehow see through this window. Instead of trying to get a bigger boat, the family down the street might instead offer to help take care of the neighbor’s yard while they are on vacation at the lake. They wouldn’t be worrying about their own importance or their visible possessions. Instead of competing with each other at work in order to please the boss, we would already understand that we are accepted by the greatest boss of all – our Heavenly Father. Knowing this, we would spend our time being helpful to everybody – helping others get ahead.

And it is no wonder. Seeing through the veil has the effect of filling us with the love of God. Of course the opposite is sometimes more commonly seen. When we fail to look through the veil, the love of many seems to disappear. Selfishness is the opposite of this eternal perspective and one of its greatest causes is not looking through the window often enough.

But failing to look through the veil is one thing. Forgetting about the veil altogether is quite another – sort of a compounded forgetfulness. Remembering that there is a place where we can glimpse into heaven – however imperfectly – should inform every aspect of our lives. Without this anchor, we are left to find meaning any other way we can. And, sadly, there are too many people living this way, and they are easy enough to spot. Charity is missing from their lives.

What then is to be done with this global epidemic of amnesia – with this failure to understand our relationship to God? The answer is really quite simple. It is the katapetasmatos. It is the veil in the House of the Lord. It is a life focused on that window into the knowledge of the love of God and of our relationship to Him.

Let’s face it. Life doesn’t offer us free samples of self esteem. How sad it is that most of us spend a lifetime trying to feel good about ourselves. It’s so much easier to just remember what we have forgotten – what is obvious on the other side of the veil. We really are children of God.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why We Need Field Guides

Travel books are popular and tend to sell well. They don’t make best seller lists, at least that I know of, but they usually occupy more shelf space in our favorite bookstores than titles on philosophy, for example, or music or even field guides.

This shouldn’t surprise anybody. We prefer traveling to thinking deeply, after all; and, as far as music goes - well, we’d much prefer to just listen to it rather than read about it. But what about field guides? This might seem like an odd question. After all, what does traveling have to do with field guides?

Well, frankly, traveling has - or at least it should have - a lot to do with field guides. The truth is that the most distinctive part of any place we might visit is more evident in the native animals and plants (even in the fungi and microbes for that matter) than in whatever man-made structures we might otherwise associate with them.

This is evident in spades to the business traveler who flies to a big city, eats at a nice publicly owned restaurant, sleeps in an upscale hotel and hardly steps outside except to hop in a cab back to the airport. “Oh the food was great,” our traveler might confess back at the office. But, in reality, our traveler has really not traveled at all. At least he hasn’t really experienced what is unique about the place he has just visited. All he has really done is change locations for few days. Unfortunately this is becoming more and more common as places all around the world compete for the world traveler’s business. The more interconnected we become nationally - and especially internationally - the more our business and tourist attractions begin to look more and more alike (as Daniel J. Boorstin has pointed out in The Image).

I don’t mean to downplay the many historical buildings and parks that make up our cities and give them personality and charm. I merely wish to point out what should be obvious. The complex of living things, that have made individual places around the world their home, is a part of the history of the world that should take priority to many other human constructs. These complexes are what make places unique.

We recognize this in ways we might not have realized. Experienced connoisseurs of wine (which I am not) are keen to the types of grapes that grow in a particular region. Sometimes these grapes are different varieties and give a corresponding flavor that is distinct. Sometimes, though, the same grapes just taste differently in different places that experience different climates. Even subtle environmental differences can make a very different wine.

Restaurateurs are also keen on locally produced foods. Crab cakes are just better on the Delmarva Peninsula than they are in Detroit. I can also vouch for the superiority of key lime pie in the Florida Keys over any other place I’ve tried it. Place is important after all, even if the purveyors of global markets try ceaselessly to convince us otherwise.

An acquaintance of mine - a true foodie - once told me that he would never eat at a chain restaurant if a local restaurant were available. And although it happens that the local cuisine is not always impressive, it at least has individuality. If he happens to misjudge a place because of a poor dinner choice, he has at least made a judgment using better criteria than the quality of a handful of national chains.

All of this may seem like a long way from field guides but, in fact, it isn’t. If food and wine are sufficient to give a place a level of local interest, the kinds of wildlife that live in a given place should do so to an even greater degree. If you like the seafood in Seattle, you should check out the coast and see how many unusual seabirds you can identify. Of course, you’ll need a field guide to help you - and hopefully you’ll be able to find a local one. Bird guides of the entire US are nice to have but for beginners looking to identify organisms in a specific place of interest, local field guides are quite a bit more helpful.

When you’re done with your trip, you’ll probably have many more fond memories of the place you visited and a more accurate understanding of what makes that place unique. Before long you’ll start planning your trips around places of natural interest instead of places that are just popular. You’ll also have a better understanding of the real world and be wiser than you would be for having just been a tourist. Before long you’ll have started to collect field guides from different places and have a lot of great reading material for bedtime. Field guides, after all are the perfect light reading at the end of the day. The information comes in small reading bites and leaves you with thoughts of interesting places to visit. You may even start dreaming of exotic places and beasts. Then, to top it all off, you’ll also be a lot smarter. This is hard to beat. And all of it for the price of an inexpensive paperback - that is usually bound to take a bit of beating. So next time you buy a travel book, make sure you stop by the field guides as well. They go hand-in-hand. And have a nice trip.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Discovery and Invention

Our time is a time of invention and innovation. We expect a constant supply of new and better products. Our economy is based on a growth that is driven by these products and by new and better ways to do things. Our patent offices around the world are busier than ever before with all the new ideas that promise to make their inventors rich.

In contrast, the period of discovery is losing momentum. There are fewer and fewer unexplored places left on earth. No new maps are being made with the inviting words “Terra Incognita” written in far away places. This doesn’t mean that we’ve discovered everything there is to know - far from it. The oceans are still mostly mysterious to us, and many new species of living things are being found every year - sometimes in our own backyards. Even so, we are funding fewer and fewer taxonomists to handle the added diversity. There is a lot we still don’t know about our world, not to mention all that lives beyond it.

Bu in spite of all this, there has been a shift in the focus of or creativity. This shift may seem subtle but it is, I think, significant. Whereas discovery accepts the reality of the world as it is, invention attempts to re-create it. Neither discoverers nor inventers can claim a monopoly on virtue or take all the credit for improving the world. But when it comes to blame - blame for harming the world - inventers far exceed discoverers. Of course inventers usually don’t try and do this intentionally. But whether they do so intentionally or not, there is a different kind of arrogance that starts with a human construct outside of the natural order and imposes it upon the living world.

I say that this is a different kind of arrogance because I don’t wish to minimize the overweening pride of many discoverers and inventers alike. Without doubt the early explorers were often motivated by pride and their arrogance lead to much harm among conquered peoples. This is not all so different from many discoverers today who compete with each other in laboratories and in the field for recognition and prestige. It may even be true that the pride of discoverers is greater than that of inventers, who very often are more motivated by wealth than by pride.

But this is not the point I wish to emphasize. Human hubris - the kind that has disrupted our planet and threatens to destroy us in any number of ways - is a problem we have inherited from inventers and not so much from discoverers.

Now it is also true that inventers would have no basic building blocks to work with if it weren’t for the effort of the discoverers. And so it might be tempting to blame them as well, but this would be a mistake. I am not arguing for a cessation of inventions. In fact, if anything, I am asking for more - but for inventions of the right kinds - the kinds that respect the natural order of things.

There is nothing inherently wrong (or even sinful) about inventing, just as there is a lot of room for wrong (and even sin) in acts of discovery. The difference is that the act of discovery itself is grounded in the creation, and if it happens that the discoverer lacks any and all respect for the Creator, this grounding is at least a check on un-natural consequences.

The act of inventing, however, is a different thing. It often involves a modification of the natural order. When this saves lives or otherwise improves the world, it is commendable. As someone with a few patents to my name, I would be a hypocrite to argue otherwise.

But the part that we have ignored for too long is that there are consequences to everything we do. There are consequences that follow from natural events. These consequences are themselves part of the natural order. But consequences that stem from unnatural events can be an entirely different thing. Perhaps these consequences may be small - like a dry shirt as a consequence of using a clothespin on a rope. Or the consequence may be great - like the genocide of an atomic bomb. In some cases we don’t have the smallest idea of the consequences of the things that we invent.

But it’s about time that we started thinking about them a little more seriously, and stop supposing that invention is an unambiguous good. A good place to start is to ask the simple question about how an invention impacts the natural order. Subsequent questions follow naturally from this.

Come to think of it though, there’s even a more fundamental issue before we can ever start to ask this question. We need to start recognizing the fact that we are part of the natural order ourselves. When we ignore this, even while we unleash so many unnatural things upon the world, we risk much. Strange as it might seem, we need to “discover” again just how much a part of this order we belong to.

Daniel Boorstin pointed out several years ago that we are living more and more in a world of what he called pseudo-events. These are un-natural events that we as humans contrive for our convenience and pride and that now surround us and fill our lives to the exclusion of the natural order of things. A significant consequence of these many contrivances in our lives is that we are no longer grounded in reality. Boorstin writes,

“More and more of our experience thus becomes invention rather than discovery. The more planned and prefabricated our experience becomes, the more we include in it only what “interests” us. Then we can more effectively exclude the exotic world beyond our ken … and which we most need to make us more largely human.” (See The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Vintage Books (1987) p. 256.)

Of course the key issue here is a willingness to acknowledge that there is a natural order for us as humans and that it is not the same as for us as animals only. This was always evident to our ancestors – who in many ways were much wiser than we seem to be. This was evident to them because they were discoverers. They were discoverers of many things – including of what it means to be human.

So let’s continue to fill our patent offices with ways to improve the world. But let us be wise enough to realize that unless we also continue to discover what it means to be truly human, we run the very real risk of destroying ourselves and a whole lot more.