The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.3 (Summer 2015)
Faith & Cultural Meltdown
The Word, the Truth, the Light, and the Life
John R. Harris
When I wrote an odd essay for the Spring issue of this journal entitled “The Word, the Truth, and the Light”, I expected to draw a little more interest than I did. The thoughts expressed in that ramble were perhaps too casually arranged. Upon me, at any rate, they have continued to press, and with increasing weight. My essential suggestion was that any creature capable of speech is potentially capable of moral behavior—and hence of having a soul. Here is my reasoning.
Speaking—as opposed to gesturing or voicing raw emotion in screams or purrs or moans—requires imagination. It requires, that is, that both speaker and listener be able to represent as present that which is absent, or to represent the present under a set of conditions not immediately available to the senses. Imagination, in turn, allows both parties to picture alternative actions to those in progress or those routinely done, even if these alternatives are not the subject of a verbal exchange. Picture this: one caveman says to another, “We get more fruit down in valley,” the other may think, “Tiger in valley. Better wait for more men. Or let him go alone. But I should speak and warn him. Young fool!” None of the links in this chain of reflection may be clearly verbalized in the thinker’s mind, yet he is nevertheless well on his way to becoming a moral being—by which I mean, simply, a being capable of moral behavior, of making choices rather than blindly obeying the dictates of impulse. He may make bad choices. He may allow the young fool to go get himself eaten by the tiger. If he does so, however, he will now suffer guilt—a feeling wholly unknown to his aphasiac ancestors. He has begun to discern in himself a moral agent, capable of shaping the future’s load of happiness or misery to some extent by his personal conduct.
Such awareness is an epochal step forward even if it comes courtesy of several bad choices and much guilt. To allegorize Genesis, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge bestows upon man a soul even though, in so doing, it puts him at risk of losing that soul. The innocence of the instinct-driven life is gone forever. Once the newly verbal creature recognizes himself capable of foreseeing options, he becomes responsible for any sad eventuality not adequately foreseen or foreseen and not adequately resisted. Silence and immobility are no longer acceptable defenses.
As a Christian, I have pondered the meaning of “word” on many occasions throughout my life; for the simple equation of “the Word” with the Gospels, which one finds abundantly among Protestant denominations, can plainly not be what John the Gospelist has in mind when declaring that the Word was (i.e., existed) in the beginning. One can translate the Greek logos as “cosmic order”, and this makes far better sense… yet why not, in that case, write cosmos? I will not go so far as to propose that John was hinting at the soul’s origins in biological evolution. I’m not insane. Yet surely every open-minded anthropologist would agree that oral traditions, and literate societies still close to those traditions, regard “the word” (both spoken and written) as something magical. They seem aware that it has endowed them with a power unique in Creation, though they cannot quite define that power. It so separates them from the rest of the animal kingdom that mute human beings invariably represent the dead in mythology; for to be alive, in human terms, is to have the power of speech. When words cease, life ceases, at least for a man. Reasoning ceases—and also imagination, and hence the ability to frame options and present oneself with choices. With words were born the human soul: that was the Beginning.
From the mists of this River Meander that I navigated over and over, I found an evening mediation—a kind of prayer—emerging. It began with the Word. I would think to myself, “The Word, the Truth, and Light, the Life”: and my thoughts would emphasize, in this first round, how the Word as a mere psychological phenomenon generated the three successive concepts. Though words may lead to lies, implicit in the notion of falsehood is that of truth. Indeed, the example I fashioned in the earlier article was of two proto-speakers engaged in a conversation wherein one decided to conceal some of the truth. This momentous decision made the liar aware that her ego and her conversant’s were not identical—that she had a “self”. It imprisoned her in a private world from which she would never escape, even if she should instantly repent and correct her misrepresentations; for that lonely land of self-consciousness, once its boundary had been crossed, would forever after lurk on the mind’s horizon, no matter how quickly the shocking steps were retraced. The great truth of individual moral responsibility, though unveiled by an almost unconscious lie, would stand tall from now on.
A daring climber might potentially scale Truth’s tower and find the Light and the Life signaling yet farther horizons. A Socrates might find intimations of immortality within the distant wreaths of growing abstraction. To be sure, there are few Socrateses over any given millennium of oral tradition. For the most part, the discovery of guilt wraps the sun’s face in clouds.
The next epochal step, in fact, may have been the hardest for humanity. “The Word, the Truth, and Light, the Life”: truth is a surprisingly difficult concept to grasp in abstract form. A tree is either bearing fruit right now, or it isn’t; a tiger either prowls the valley right now, or she doesn’t. No abstraction there. But when the possession of several such facts belongs to one mentality alone in a group, and when that mind is well aware of its unique position, and when the selfish advantages possible to exploit in that position begin suggesting themselves, the individual may wish that he had never known anything. The loneliness of facing so many and such new responsibilities can be staggering.
“Infected” by the suspicion of having a soul yet ignorant of how to sedate this strange new malaise, the speaking human would try (as we know but too clearly from the archaeological record) to crawl back into a pre-vocal womb with the aid of crude, blunt rituals. Nothing stills the tongue like blood. Nothing numbs the mind like death. Troughs ran with sacrificial gore for more millennia before our ancestors accepted that the sedative could not obliterate permanently—that the consciousness of guilt would always linger once the ecstasy of riotous participation wore off.
All by itself, that disappointment was a major truth. It was a doorway to the Truth. There are feelings, it seems, which we all share (failure to share them, in contemporary parlance, constitutes a sociopathic condition). Though we feel only as individuals and not as a collective, we may transcend the loneliness of self-consciousness by speaking—and later, writing—of our soul’s concealed motions to others of our kind. There is a brotherhood not of blood, but of spirit. Even our ritual denial of that great brotherhood in the throes of a blood sacrifice becomes a shared source of shame, as when three friends wake up on some stranger’s carpet dazed, scantily clad, and sodden after a night’s debauch. Our very act of participation in personal responsibility’s murder—our own act and the same act in our brethren—is fully understandable to us now as a flight from a higher reality, a hidden reality. For we have discovered abstract principle: we know at last, though only dimly, that our frighteningly intimate private world spins upon an axis whose poles exert the same invisible magnetism upon everyone.
Again, one may view this spiritual awakening to Truth simply in the context of lying. When a person resolves to amend his lies and share nothing but the truth with his comrade henceforward, he invites that other person into an imaginary space created through and above that private space where partial or fragmented truths are wrought for external consumption. The new space doesn’t exist under any sort of material necessity: even the most faithful observer of pacts and treaties may be seen as awaiting the moment of maximum advantage to betray his promise in each specific case. Rather, this unenforced space survives merely because of the soulful pleasure it gives to all collaborators. Though every one of them knows that he may break its rules at any instant and probably pass undetected, at least over the short haul, the choice to recreate that pristine innocence of the speechless family—to create it deliberately now rather than to inherit it from dull ignorance—is perhaps the first act of true faith. It is a professed commitment to joining all those lonely personal spaces together into an artificial construct: a domain of chosen principles. The choice is required by inner law—but the inner law is adopted by choice. These beings—these human beings, ourselves if we can hold on to our humanity—have settled a new continent not found on Planet Earth and not visible to any telescope. It’s called Truth.
Yet as glorious as truth surely is, and as generously lit the vistas which it offers of a new life not materially constricted, it can also become its own worst enemy. Mere truth, that is—the truth and nothing but the truth—must remain materially conditioned in this world. Even when we share it, fully and generously, with our peers, we share horrors: the truth of personal tragedy and general calamity, the truth of undeserved misery, the truth of death. We discover the appeal of the “charitable lie”. We begin to realize that the truth, as far as we can know it in our present form, forever leads us to the edge of an abysmal doubt.
“The Word, the Truth, and Light, the Life”: truth requires the supplementation of enlightenment. We cannot know of any existence beyond this world as true. Mere logic suffices, though, to show us that the truths of this world cannot be the full truth. We cannot explain, for instance, any beginning but as the consequence of yet another beginning: hence the very need of beginnings (or causes) that drives our reasoning upon material reality undoes itself by hiding adequate explanation in indefinite regression. I have discussed the array of such self-contradictory “truths” (or, more precisely, of the self-contradictory standards our human mind must use to measure truth) in a book titled Climbing Backward Out of Caves. I won’t revisit all of the snares into which our terrestrial truths must forever thrust their heads. I will say here only two things. First, the most dizzying abyss of them all into which truth directs our gaze is not misery’s or death’s, but the maddening perplexity of wondering if misery and death really are as they seem—of being condemned always to question in this life if we know any truth at all. Is the abyss even five feet deep? Is it not a small trench, perhaps, obscured by haze? Or is there even a trench—do our eyes betray us?
Secondly, the paradoxical gift of doubt licenses us to shed the light of speculation into those dark corners where truth has not managed to reach. The very love of truth encourages us to leave truth behind as an earnest but deficient guide, just as Dante must leave Virgil on the shores of Purgatory. The honor in which we still hold our old companion will not allow us now to indulge ourselves in any fantasy whatever; yet some speculations harmonize the vague psychic energies that stir and war and beseech within us, and these deserve special attention simply for creating harmony. How, after all, does a thoughtful man or woman live in constant doubt? How does such a person resolve to risk his life retrieving children from a burning school bus when this life, here and now, may be the only one he will ever have? But if, having chosen that conclusion because its “minimalist” assumptions seem least to strain credibility, how will he enjoy those precious remaining days of mortal life with the screams of children always in his memory? Perhaps his calculation failed to gather in all the bare essentials, after all!
I have long believed that, in this manner, natural means can lead certain people to faith in a supreme being—which is not, I know, the succession of guides represented by Dante. Did Socrates succeed in slipping through Purgatory’s back window in the fashion attempted ruinously by Ulysses and his crew? Not if you stick with Dante’s account, wherein the greatest sage of ancient Athens is forever confined to Limbo; but the terms of Plato’s Phaedo suggest a different answer. If the man at that dialogue’s center has not chosen true life over its poor imitation here on earth, then none of us has ever done so. For life, in a word, is what we all crave: the life created by enlightened truth, or truth elevated above the merely material affirmations of our first words. Even Dante’s Ulysses proclaims that we were not born to live the life of beasts—or in the words of Tennyson’s version, to “hoard, and feed, and sleep” is not our destiny. True life is not the mere absence of death, but the absence of any longing for death. The dissolute rake longs to drown his thoughts in wine and song; the coward longs to curl into a ball and sleep without waking; the wage-slave longs to ex out all the work days on his calendar, leaving himself a few short years to doze in peace before the grave; the megalomaniac longs to bring everything about him to a standstill, that he may eat and breathe in a collective paralysis which doesn’t require any personal response or moral development. These are all varieties of death—of chosen death: of life-fear disguised as death-fear. How we cling to them… and how we hate them! How we long to live as we struggle with all our many forms of life-assassination!
“The Word, the Truth, the Light, and the Life”: to me, the Gospels are all of these four ascending steps in the fullest sense, whereas the lower steps can only imply the higher ones. The words of Christ’s story tell how one may die to death; and there is only one such story, for there is essentially only one such way. The truth of this way lies written in our experience, though, as well as in Christ’s—for we know how it feels to participate in a wordless ritual of slaughtering innocents, which horror is motive enough to make many of us ever after prefer a stance among the condemned. A few lapidations at the hands of the World suffice to convince us that death works at the stone’s sending- rather than at its receiving-end. The light ignites, and all within its glow shows life and more life—life abounding and unending.
There are “Koranic Christians”, of course, to whom the entire Bible is equally and absolutely true, as a transmission direct from the tongue of the Most High: true in the blunt sense that, “Tiger in valley,” was once true. They project their fear of death into the Word, and hence introduce death into it. The light doesn’t shine for them. Divine injunctions in the Old Testament to slay the enemy unto the last woman and child are, to them, true reports of God’s words. The Devil’s tempting Christ with worldly dominion must not—to them—to be sullied by reflecting on the situation’s nonsense, inasmuch as Christ is the incarnate projection of that power which created this world and all worlds. To them, an alpha is an alpha, and “word” means “word”. Read, hear, and obey (whatever “obey” means when “read” and “hear” do not mean “think”).
In this sense, I believe the Bible is a great stumbling block. It quickens words and truth with a light whose igniting spark must come from the reader. A cold, dead coal cannot generate a fire (to paraphrase Epictetus). Words mean… but only to a mind hungry for coherence, to a soul longing for harmony. I can carelessly type “steller” and every sensible, mature reader will easily recognize “stellar” in the simple gaffe—but my computer, said by its creators to have a mind much quicker and more resourceful than yours, mine, or theirs, will correct my error to “stealer”.
The evocation of the almighty computer is not offered as a casual analogy. Corruption is always stalking our uneasy species from within; and, in these latest electronic children of our genius, we have perhaps created the ultimate mechanism to undo ourselves as moral beings—to render us less morally sentient than a caveman or a dolphin. Our “devices” make words for us. They make more words, and in more ways (a.k.a. “media”), every year. They already correct our grammar and spelling, and soon they will write short letters at our vague behest. (In fact, they have long produced “text” for us if we will only filter our milling thoughts into one of half a dozen templates on a “menu”.) From the other direction, we have less and less to say as we do less and less thinking. The collapse of our orthography into sound-alike ciphers (“CU later”), soundless visual gestures (“XOXO”), and stereotyped caricatures brutally called “icons” aptly represents the evaporation of many other psychic functions. Such slovenly insouciance about the coding of thoughts has been a fixture in our collective life for well over a decade now. By some measures (e.g., if we consider the impact of television upon the heavy consumer’s mapping of his or her own life-path), the toxic influence has ravaged us for a good half-century.
We have less to say as our media get better at saying it: they rise as we fall. Eventually, we shall meet each other, our own thoughts so devoid of nuance and spirituality that a machine can share them, the machine’s thoughts so successfully mimetic that we jealously claim their author as our “friend”. And after that… after that, who knows if a peaceful fusion of man and machine will follow, or if the mechanized vector will continue upward on its own and consign the degenerate human midwife of its triumph to the role of permanent lackey?
The ancient poets were right: our speech is what makes us different from animals. “Dumb” animals, in a phrase now considered uncharitable (uncharitable because we have forgotten the true meaning of “dumb”, along with the true meaning of “charity” and just about every other word in our lexicon). If we lose our expressive ability, we lose our ability to imagine options and choose among them; if we lose our ability to choose deliberatively, then we lose our moral capacity; and if we lose our moral capacity, we lose our humanity. If we lose language, we lose everything. We lose our privileged position within hearing distance of God’s echoing commandments.
We are eagerly creating a great evil. I do not end my evening meditation this way, but so I must end the present transcription of it; for I can generally find enough peace in my gratitude to God that a good night’s sleep will follow, but I cannot impose that peace upon a society that seems ungrateful for—and even contemptuous of—the greatest of gifts. Every sincere prayer, I think, must be an individual prayer. “Getting connected” is nothing like praying.
Dr. John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin.