Sunday Night Journal — August 19, 2012
A Few Simple Commands
Thursday was the Feast of the Assumption, and I made my way across town to St. Mary of the Visitation, where our little Anglican Use congregation was having Mass at 12:15. I was having an extremely busy day at work, and had trouble getting away. Then the drive took a little longer than expected, and so I was late. I walked in just as the reading from Revelation was beginning. It was a bit of a shock to step so suddenly from the workaday world to the very strange events described there: a woman clothed with the sun and crowned with stars, about to give birth; a dragon with seven heads and ten horns waiting to devour the child; the defeat of the one who accuses “the brethren” day and night before the throne of God.
What can all this mean? What is it really describing? We’re often told that it’s all symbolic and we shouldn’t take the specific imagery too seriously. No doubt it is symbolic, but that doesn’t mean the images are connected to what they symbolize only by the thread of metaphorical logic. I think we’re justified in supposing that the symbol is also an accurate picture of some aspect of the reality. But I also think the full reality is most likely something we could not possibly understand, the way the two-dimensional creatures in the classic Flatland are utterly unable to imagine the third dimension. We’re given these very strange but fundamentally simple representations because we aren’t capable of understanding anything more.
I sometimes wonder what the reality represented by the term “throne of God” might actually be like. I can’t really say that I conjecture, or imagine, because I can’t even get that far. And I wonder about the relation of stories like the woman and the dragon to time and eternity. They happened, or are happening, or will happen, or perhaps all three together. How does it all work, this spiritual world of which the Bible and the traditions of the Church give us only hints and simple pictures? Dragons, thrones, women, moon and stars—we can make sense of these, but what the combat between God and evil really looks like, from an angel’s point of view, is probably as incomprehensible to us as a book on mathematics is to a dog. What does “looks like” even mean in that realm? The possibility of getting some sort of real understanding of these things is not the least of the pleasures I hope to experience in the next life. No doubt we’ll never be able to understand it all, but our understanding will grow and grow as we become more and more like God.
Meanwhile, we have to recognize our limits. I find it useful to consider my two dogs, Andy and Lucy, in connection with this. My wife and I from time to time have an exchange about their mental abilities. She’ll say, for instance, that they think its unfair if one of them gets some sort of treat or special treatment and the other doesn’t. I insist that dogs don’t “think” in that sense. It’s clear that when either of the dogs gets something, the other expects to get it, too, but I don’t think that is evidence of a concept of fairness, but rather simply that the second dog wants it. In any case, they certainly can’t form any conception of the reasons for that unequal treatment. Andy has to stay on a leash when we walk, while Lucy gets to go free (in the immediate neighborhood), because she’s reasonably obedient and he isn’t. I have explained this to him, but have never received any indication that he understood.
The human purposes that govern these things, indeed almost every aspect of the human life that goes on all around them, and occasionally makes some sort of direct intervention in theirs, are utterly incomprehensible to them. What , for instance, do they make of the sounds that we continually make and which to us constitutes a symbolic language referencing everything from the temperature of the house to theology? They recognize their names, though Lucy seems not to know the difference between “Lucy” and “Andy.” And they recognize a few simple commands: “no,” “come,” “sit.” They’re pretty good at recognizing a tone in the human voice that indicates displeasure or something bad about to happen, and they recognize a comforting gentle tone, but there’s no reason to think that they understand the content of a specific sentence like “Stop making that noise—it’s driving me crazy.” Essentially everything that isn’t a command signifies nothing more specific than approval or disapproval: “No!” “Good boy” (or girl)
Most of the activity that goes on in the house is utterly meaningless to them. What could they possibly make of, say, sweeping the floor, or washing the dishes? Every weekday morning they get put into cages,where they stay for the nine-to-ten hours we’re away at work. This was a last resort which we finally arrived at as the only way to prevent the trouble they got into while we were gone. They can have no least idea of where we go and what we do when we leave every morning, or why they have to be caged.
I think our relationship to God is very much like this. What we know is not false, but it is only a very small hint of the reality. Everyone knows the story of the vision St. Thomas Aquinas had toward the end of his life which made him declare that everything he had written was only straw. But I don’t think that meant that what he had written was false, only that it came nowhere near doing justice to the reality. All our theology tells us little more about God than my dogs know about me, which likewise is not false but which does not even have a vocabulary for the sort of knowledge it does not contain. We are capable of knowing a few things: who the food and the petting come from, and with a lot of training we can manage to understand a few simple commands—do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery—but, like ill-trained dogs, we are not at all reliable about following them.
The big difference between the two cases is that we have been told that we are capable of more, and will one day pass into a different order of being where we will be capable of understanding things that are perhaps now as far beyond us as human speech is for a dog. I sometimes think we can learn something from our dogs about obedience to mysterious commands.
I’m sure this image is under copyright but I haven’t been able to find its source.
I have always found St. Thomas’ “straw” comment amazing, not only in itself but also in light of his philosophy: he had such a high view of reason, believing that rational creatures could, in principle, understand any created thing.
I’ve sometimes had similar thoughts about dogs (on the one side) and God (on the other). You’ve reminded me of this Far Side cartoon.
Posted by: Craig | 08/29/2012 at 08:24 AM
Well, I really botched those HTML tags!
Posted by: Craig | 08/29/2012 at 08:25 AM
Hmm, I fixed them but the change is not appearing...maybe if I post a comment...
Posted by: Mac | 08/29/2012 at 09:45 AM
Posted by: Mac | 08/29/2012 at 09:46 AM
Oh, I see--yeah, you did botch those pretty thoroughly.:-) The double-quotes were real typographer's curly-double-quotes, not just the basic ASCII tick-marks or inch-marks.
Anyway, thanks for finding that cartoon, which I remember well and as a matter of fact was thinking of when I wrote this.
Posted by: Mac | 08/29/2012 at 09:51 AM
Thanks for making the repairs. I sometimes type my comments in NotePad before copying them into your comment box, but this time I used Word. I'll not do that again.
Posted by: Craig | 08/29/2012 at 10:14 AM
Thought it was probably something like that. Word processors do all sorts of things for you that you don't want in a pure text document.
Posted by: Mac | 08/29/2012 at 11:24 AM