Monday, March 21, 2016

THE NEXUS: THE PLACE OF BECOMING WHO WE ARE

We need friends in order to know anything--even ourselves.   ~CS Lewis

For the last few months—in preparation for a class that I’ve been teaching—I’ve been in the company of two good friends: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Although I am an admirer of both of these writers, the friendship I am referring to is between them. The story of how these two bookish Oxford professors produced some of the best-selling titles of the twentieth century (“The Narnian Chronicles” and “The Lord of the Rings,” among others) is a fascinating account of intellect, faith, and loss; but it is most interestingly a story of friendship. Tolkien and Lewis contributed to each other’s work not by writing together—each was far too much an individual genius—but by listening, supporting, goading, and even criticizing. In Lewis’ phrase, they “acted as midwives” in the process of bringing one another’s books to completion. They were friends.

Lewis and Tolkien, both combat veterans of World War I, met as new faculty members at an Oxford garden party in 1921, and remained friends until Lewis’ death in 1963. Of course a friendship of four decades is not going to be one long garden party, and their association had its share of tensions, jealousies, and disappointments. But through it all, they considered each other to be brothers in the faith, and they gratefully acknowledged what their friendship had contributed to making each the writer—and the person—he had come to be.

It’s impossible to determine what Lewis’s Narnia would have been like without Tolkien’s influence, and whether Tolkien would have quit dithering with the Silmarillion and gotten on with finishing The Lord of The Rings without Lewis’s prodding. Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that the literary works that flowed from their pens was, at least to some degree, a product of their friendship as well as their individual talent.

This is not an exercise in sentimentalizing friendship—as though Tolkien and Lewis had pledged that they were BFFs—but I see their relationship as a laboratory example of a profound element of reality: What the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls the “nexus.” In Whitehead’s “process” approach to philosophy the fundamental basis of everything—in the microcosm and the macrocosm, the atom and the galaxy, the material and the relational—is not the individual entity (to use a favorite Whitehead term), but the evolving relationship between entities.  Essence, then, is not located in “being,” but “becoming.” And the ever-emerging realities-of-the moment are connected not by a static link, but at an ever-changing point between what has been and what will be: the nexus. (Just try to pin that nexus down!) In fact, an “entity” itself becomes what it is at any given moment only as a stage in a continual process of change. This all sounds very deep, but it is easily illustrated by the difference between King Midas’ living daughter and a golden statue, between a person and a corpse. “Life is change,” the old adage truly says. When the “becoming” stops, so does the “being.”

This is readily seen in the slow-motion video of a caterpillar-becoming-a-butterfly, or the fascinating spring growth of a tree. But, although it is not so “material,” the constant-becoming of a relationship is no less real: Here is C.S. Lewis, and here is J.R.R. Tolkien, and here—at the nexus—is the friendship.  If the friendship were an aspect only of one or the other of them, it would not be a friendship. It is a life-force that flows between them, no less real than the corporeal being each of them is. Of course the joy of this—and the potential sorrow—is that, like all nexuses, it is not only always changing. It is “change” itself.

Beyond Lewis and Tolkien and the nexus-geyser out of which sprang their delightful books, I have been thinking about other historical friendships which have become historical precisely because their accomplishments are, in fact, products not of one or the other of them, but of whatever that life-force is between them. Let’s call it their nexus: Lewis and Clark, the Wright brothers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. (I know it is a subtle difference, but I am not speaking of two people who get together to work on a project--rather of something that comes about because of a living connection.) C.S. Lewis describes the genesis of friendship as that moment when one says to the other, “What? You, too? I thought I was the only one…,” and the two new friends open together the doors of their isolation; the doors open onto a new place.

One of the deepest locations of finding reality at the place-of-coming-together is marriage. Studies in marriage therapy show that members of relatively healthy couples use the word “we” a lot; an emphasis on “I” when describing what one wants in a relationship is a red flag. One well-respected marriage counselor notes that—when they argue—members of happy marriages are concerned about the marriage (and their partner) and not just “winning the fight.” As one of my teachers liked to put it, “I may win the argument, but I may lose you!” Marriages (and friendships) die when “we” becomes “I” and the nexus is severed as viscerally as Solomon’s proposed dissecting of that baby; or when one or the other tries to freeze in place that life-force that must, in order to live, continue to grow and change.

Love is both formed and sustained at the nexus. In a marriage, each one pours himself, herself, into this living space, and pours him or herself out for the sake of the other. Rather than being consumed in the process, each is constantly renewed as the nexus is constantly reborn. The result is not a cut-out valentine heart pinned to the wall, but: “home,” “family,” “daily life,” “forgiveness”—a place of safety and welcome not just for these two, but for “all who enter here.” In a wedding sermon, written from prison to a young couple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Up till now, it is your love that has made the marriage; from now on it is the marriage that will sustain your love.” The nexus.

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At the request of a few friends, I will write a more complete account of the relationship and work of Lewis, Tolkien, and "the Inklings" in a future post.

Although "infinity" or "eternity" is beyond our ability to grasp, some approaches to cosmology posit that the universe itself may be infinite, and always changing--always "becoming." Whitehead suggests that "god" is eternally changeless and eternally open to change. I explored these mysteries in this meditation.
Alfred North Whitehead
JRR Tolkien



C.S. Lewis





Saturday, January 9, 2016

WHAT AM I DOING?

During the Christmas holiday, daughter Anna had a nice, unobtrusive way of taking occasional candid photos of the goings-on. I like this one of me, for a couple of reasons. (One Facebook friend remarked that it would make a good jigsaw puzzle!) But, while taking a second look, it occurred to me that the picture presents a different, rather modern puzzle, which could be titled, “What is he doing?”

It’s not difficult to see that I am holding and looking at my iPhone (ah, the tell-tale Apple logo accomplishes its intended purpose). But what am I doing? This Amazing Techno-Age which we’ve entered allows a surprising number of equally probable guesses, any of which could explain this very photo. I could be:

  •      Reading a book on my Kindle app.
  •      Reading St. Luke’s Christmas story from my Olive Tree Bible app.
  •      Pondering the New York Times crossword on my NY Times Crossword app.
  •      Reading the New York Times.
  •      Pondering my next move in my ongoing Scrabble game with a friend.
  •      Looking up a word on my Oxford English Dictionary app. (Not that I would ever do so to cheat at Scrabble….)
  •      Reading an article from The Guardian in my Safari “Save For Later” feature.
  •      Reading The Atlantic magazine.
  •      Reading the Minneapolis StarTribune.
  •      Catching up on my e-mail.
  •      Checking the recipe I’m using for tonight’s dinner.
  •      Checking the lectionary texts for preaching this coming Sunday.
  •      Looking at the calendar I share with Caryl.
  •      Looking at an incoming phone call to decide if I should answer.
  •      Reading a clever text message from brother-in-law Jeff.
  •      Drifting off, after doing any of the above.


For most of the choices above, if I knew how to do it, I could photo-shop an appropriate image to substitute for the iPhone in my hand (book, Bible, magazine, crossword book, etc.), and the game would be over; in fact, there’d be no game. We wouldn’t be asking, “What’s he doing?” But, since the question remains, we are left to wonder not only what it is I might be doing, but what effect such a protean device has on our minds, our lives, and our relationships.

At one level, the smartphone is just another functional delivery system, giving us access to all of the media, information, and entertainment listed above (and you could probably double the list)—with the added convenience of not having to move across the room to a bookshelf, game table, dictionary stand, or mailbox.

But, on another level, if we are honest, I think we find something off-putting about scenes like this. If we are honest, is not our first impression that the subject (me) is rather wrapped up in himself, oblivious to anyone else who might be in the room, and—if in fact there are others in the room—rude? This photo at least allows for such a reaction in a way that a picture of me reading a book or working a folded-paper crossword puzzle would not.

I don’t have a clear answer to the difference between finding an innocent explanation (he’s reading the Bible), or an offended one (put down the phone, jerk!), but it must have something to do with the mystery of the device—since we don’t know what he’s doing, we’re shut out, and left to assume the worst. This is similar to what social-science experiments have found to explain why an overheard cell-phone conversation in a restaurant or airport lounge is so irritating: In addition to the volume of the speaker (often), we are psychologically off-balance because we only hear one side of the conversation—we’re left hanging.

I make it a practice not to be bent over my iPhone in the presence of our grandkids, but on the rare occasions when I am, I have taken to letting them know that I’m reading the newspaper or a book. And, while I still use the Kindle app for convenience at times (in the doctor’s waiting room, for example), I have gone back to actual books for my general reading, primarily because when Sam and Violet see me reading a book, I want them to see me reading a book, and not staring at a screen. (Plus—I love the books!) In her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” author Sherry Turkle makes the obvious but important point that the most significant element in our kids’ relationship to these devices is what they see demonstrated by the adults in their lives.

So, what am I doing in Anna’s photo? I am on the Apple Music app, searching for—and about to play—a beautiful song about friendship which Jeff sent me from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s new album. And Anna played some of her songs for me. (We were the only two in the room.) It was a lovely time.

As to photo-shopping: Don’t you think that if I could replace the iPhone in my picture with a floppy leather Bible, it could become a new classic--like that portrait of the old man praying over his supper? I’m going to order up the jigsaw puzzle version. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

ARLO 'N' ROLLIE 'N' ME




Yesterday, Caryl asked if I could start staining the trim on the new windows in the front entry. I replied that I’d get to it soon, but first I needed to finish a paragraph I was struggling with in my blog. As soon as I said this and headed toward my desk, I started smiling—laughing a bit at myself, really—as two seemingly-unrelated vignettes formed in my head in rapid succession. In the first, my dialogue with Caryl turned into an Arlo ‘N’ Janis cartoon. The last two panels went something like this: Janis: “And how many readers do you have for this blog?” Arlo: “Uhhh, can I count you?...”

The second vignette: Years ago, after I had been in my new parish for a few weeks, I made my first pastoral call on Rollie (not his real name), who had been in the nursing home for a number of years. Rollie had been an accomplished musician, and, as he sat on his bedside chair, he described with glowing eyes and gracefully moving hands the oratorio he was working on. (“Then the trumpets come in…” etc.). After a few minutes, he paused, and with a bemused look on his face said, “But I’m stuck, pastor. I want to use the word ‘alleluia’ in my oratorio, and I think Mr. Handel has that copyrighted.” That sounds like a punchline out of another cartoon, but Rollie was dead serious. So I sobered my smile a little and assured him that anyone was free to use the word “alleluia,” and that he wouldn’t get into trouble. He seemed a bit relieved, but the next time I visited him, he told me about his oratorio and said, “But I’m stuck, Pastor….” He was still worried about the copyright. It became clear to me that Rollie’s oratorio was the product not only of his musical aptitude, but also of his growing dementia.

What stands out in my memory—more than the cloud that came over him when he fretted about “alleluia”—was the way Rollie’s eyes glowed (in that house of dulled eyes) as he was describing the glories of his oratorio. I could almost hear those trumpets.

The hapless Arlo often reminds me of myself, with Janis (Caryl) listening to my latest scheme before leveling me with a comment that is both smart and loving.

But I also identify with Rollie. I am (I hope) a bit more fully into my right mind than he was when I visited him, but, still, this little blog project is sort of my oratorio. And if the day should come when I slip a little, I hope my eyes shine like Rollie’s when I explain to the visiting pastor, “I’m just finishing a paragraph that I’ve been struggling with in my blog!” A really sensitive pastor will tell me that he’s one of my readers.