Personal Letter, dated November 3, 2003

Just a collection of random observations—as usual...


[Quick personal update: Job going well, traveling 80% of the time. Making progress on developing my Blues project [LINK REMOVED/RETIRED] (to help Fund the LATI tech-school I hope to do in the future here [LINK REMOVED/RETIRED]), but still working through legal issues to be able to ensure the artists/myself are protected. Starting to do a little more Tank work, as the schedules are becoming slightly less hectic. Busy, busy, but things seem generally well.]


One. The Fear of the Tremendous.

I remember coming across this phrase years and years ago, in some anthro-book or something. It was describing some 'human' response to encounters with God--”Fear of the Terrible” was the phrase, I think.

I have always understood the notion (and wisdom!) of being afraid of God's wrath (conjuring up images of roaring jet engines in my mind, shaking the ground under me, as they took off from the runway, barely over my head), and I have always been 'awesomely calmed' by the theological doctrine of propitiation (“The perfect satisfaction of the just demands of outraged holiness”, LS Chafer).

But a couple of weeks ago, I had an odd (and disappointing, I felt) fear of experiencing His 'good presence'. Let me describe this to you.

I had been helping a young friend of mine work through some gut-wrenching issues. The time investment that I made was substantial (for me), and it was clear that God was blessing both of us during the interaction. After some substantial progress had been made, there was a lull in the interaction. The next day was a Sunday, and during my morning prayers (generally more expansive than during the business week), I sensed God approaching me with an 'offer' (?) of a numinous experience. How I sensed this, I have no clue—but it was as obvious to me as the nose on my face. It was something like 'sensing' an incipient claustrophobic 'episode' (I had a period of 6 months or so when I developed symptoms of claustrophobia, ten years ago, so I know whereof I speak), but it didn't have that 'panic' element involved.

But I found myself asking God to 'back off' a little bit, because I didn't think I could 'handle' a numinous experience that morning(!). Previous such experiences (which I can number on two hands, over 30 years), were psychically 'devastating' and 'debilitating'--they washed over me and I was in 'charred remains' mode for days...So, I found myself asking my Lord for just our 'regular' type of interaction instead. It wasn't fear of 'wrath' of course, but just a fear of the experiential intensity of God's manifestation.

I felt a little disappointed at my weakness and frailty, and was quite fearful that I might have somehow disappointed my precious-hearted Lord in this process (“Grieving the Spirit”?). To this day, it bothers me a little when I reflect upon this. There was nothing malicious in my response, of course, and it is in perfect harmony with the experiences of biblical figures in related situations (although I didn't fall down 'as if dead'), and God is not petty so I know everything is okay, and I even wonder if it wasn't just a simple object lessor, to remind me about the life of faith-versus-sight.

But it impressed upon me again why God has to maintain some kind of 'distance' from us in this life, and weave His interactions through semi-oblique, non-terrifying, and non-numinous media (e.g., scripture, the hearts of His friends, the gentleness of providence). Remember how the Israelites begged God to not speak to them directly, 'lest they die'? And how Peter, James, and John quailed in fear at the Transfiguration—although their normal experience of Jesus was only intermittently characterized by 'intense amazement'?

Yet Moses spoke with God face to face, “as a man speaks with his friend” (Ex 33.11), without noting such feelings (although this was clearly different—as evidenced by the transformation of Moses' face into something glowing, so the comparison might be unfair).

So, I find myself wondering what the experience of God will be like, after death and/or after I get a new physicality...First John says that “we shall see Him as He is, for we shall be like Him”, but for now I will be thankful and trust Him that He knows best how to mediate His presence and communication to my frail frame.


Two. The GoldenRule/Talion basis of judgment.

The GoldenRule says something like “do onto others what you want them to do onto you”, and the law of Talion (in the OT/Tanaach) says “use for a penalty the same act/results the perp was trying to do/inflict upon another”. And closely related to these is Jesus' pronouncement of “by what standard you judge others, by that same standard will YOU be judged”.

We have spoken about these matters often on the Tank, as I have pondered the basis of judgment, but it becomes clearer and clearer each time I read through the bible that this might be the final basis of moral judgment upon us.

The best statement of this I can come up with so far runs something like this:

My actual valuation and ethical system (as opposed to my professed one) is unambiguously revealed in how I evaluate the actions and attitudes of others toward me.

If I complain about how someone treats me, I implicitly 'expound' a behavioral code that says 'any human' should not be treated that way. [I can try to get around this by de-humanizing others, but the problem of 'I wouldn't want to be so de-humanized myself' would exist here as well. We'll talk about 'elite prioritization' in a later bullet.]

I suspect—and it's too early to 'prove' this yet—that this actual ethical code (with some significant clarifications) is universal among reasonably non-pathological humans.

Let me speak now of the 'significant clarifications':

In the pathological category, I would perhaps include masochism (”I like abuse/pain, because it makes me feel alive or significant.”), although I am convinced that this behavior is every bit as self-centered and 'thresholded' (i.e., pain up to a certain point is considered 'pleasurable', but beyond that it's considered out-of-bounds, and therefore 'wrong'), as would be sadism. This still actually falls into the 'give me what I want' category, and so still supports the view here. [The difference might be in how much variability there can be in the forms of what is considered 'good'. “Be good to me”, where “good” is defined as a role-defined 'punisher'(?) is still in the ethical framework of “I deserve to get what I want”...]

This leads to another distinction often made in discussion of universal social morality—that the meta-laws are universal, but the concrete 'incarnations' of those laws are not. It is universally held, for example, that one should not murder-with-malice a member “in good standing” of one's inner trust and shared-welfare group (all things being normal, e.g. no conspiracy or treachery afoot). But who might be inside that group can vary from culture to culture. Some cultures say it is okay to murder members of rival tribes, but not okay to murder one's younger sister (all things being normal). It's almost like—at a meta-ethic level—that some universal principle exists that says “you should not murder those who should not be murdered”, where the delineation of the members of that latter group are culturally variant (but only within a narrow variance, however—this circle of 'who should not be murdered' is not infinitely flexible.)

Also in the pathology category, would be social aberrations (e.g., New World Slavery, old-India Caste system) in which I would expect someone to mistreat me, because of my 'status' in the social system. In such a system, this produces an aberrant ethic ('if the roles were reversed, I would abuse them gladly, too'). I consider this to be a social aberration, since the biblical ethic (as manifested in the Exodus legislation) was 'Do not mistreat the slave/alien, for remember that you were slaves/aliens in Egypt'. In other words, it is appropriate to feel 'wronged' by certain types of mis-treatment in those social/economic relationships. [This is not to exclude hierarchical relationships from the category of legitimate social/economic relationships, but rather to note that certain types of behaviors in those relationships would/should be judged to be unethical—by an outside party, for example.]

I am thinking less here of a moral 'code', than of an 'irrefutable' standard of judgment. If, on judgment day, God were to say to someone “Okay, I am going to judge you by your obvious self-chosen-code, and since you radically, self-righteously, and loudly disapproved of other people mistreating, abusing, exploiting, or ignoring you, I will hold you accountable for all the times/cases in which you manifested that behavior toward others.” With visibility into the hearts of humans, we would be defenseless against such a judgment...All we could say would be something like “Well, they deserved that abuse, because X” and then God simply turns that argument/standard back around on us double standards allowed—

This is still early thinking, but I can see this has potential...and the implications of 'reap what you sow' can be staggering:

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. “ (Luke 12.35ff)

“Although a few philosophers argued that slaves were the moral equals of their masters, and one well-to-do Roman is known to have eaten on the same level as his freed slaves, masters’ serving slaves was unheard-of. Such an image would offend the well-to-do but would be a powerful symbol of how Jesus would treat those who remained faithful to the end. [BBC]


Three: Arrogance as epistemic distortion.

There are a number of places in the bible with verses/sentiments like this one from Ps 36.2:

For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin.[NIV]

The point is made that self-flattery (too high a self-evaluation, out-of-synch with reality) also produces a distortion in perception, judgment, and valuation. This is a consistent theme—that arrogance is self-deception and 'foolishness'--and produces 'effects' in life in keeping with the distortion.

I was reflecting on this a few weeks ago, and I realized that arrogance was essentially a mis-valuation of one's self, in relation to others. It was as if, in a group of peers (each with the same intrinsic value), one of the people all of a sudden became of more value, more worth, and more intrinsic importance (as opposed to functional importance, which might be very unevenly distributed in a group) than the others. The valuation of others would now be relativized by the larger-value of the arrogant one. More importantly, the value of others would now be subordinated to the value of the Arrogant One (hereafter, AO).

Let me explain this sub-ordination thing. In many/most ethical systems, there is a hierarchy of values which dictate which value should be maintained in a situation of conflict of values. For example, in the Western world, there is a value in privacy—you don't wake a neighbor up in the middle of the night by banging on their door and yelling. But there is a 'higher' value of 'protecting life'--you DO wake a neighbor up if their house is burning and they are in mortal danger. To bang on the door or not are conflicting ethical imperatives, and the hierarchy of values dictates which imperative 'wins out' and gets done.

Now, in a solitary setting, my personal value may be the highest 'around', with the consequence that it is appropriate for me to 'order my environment' around my value. I can, appropriately, cut trees down to build shelter or fire (they are 'lower' in value than a human—in the biblical system). I can catch, cook, and eat fish (as Jesus did), since their values are true but 'lower than' a human's (“are you not worth more than many birds?”, Jesus asked...).

However, as soon as I enter into a social setting, with other people, the dynamics change. If we are all value-peers, then we should at least be looking out for each other's values to the same extent as we do for our own value (cf. “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”, Phil 2.4).

However, as soon as one person decides that their value is higher, then all of a sudden, all other people are 'lower' in value, and therefore, should recognize and 'serve the higher good'. This means that the AO begins to operate on a utility principle: everybody else (being of lower value) are appropriate vehicles for 'usage'. Just as fish or trees can be seen as 'means to support my (higher) value', so too can people be seen as means/tools to meet MY personal ends/needs, etc. From this one can see easily the historical step to 'ethically justified' exploitation, manipulation, extortion, social injustice, oppression, de-humanization, elitism, and even various forms of thievery and abuse (i.e., everybody exists for me, so it's ultimately an ethically-good act for me to steal from lower-valued people).

In the real world, this is a major epistemic distortion. People don't work that way, values are NOT ordered around ones-self, and the social system will ultimately reject such an anti-community perspective (too often after the damage has been done). Social control mechanisms will eventually cut on, and the dictator (or local deity, depending on the will be banished, demoted, or dethroned. (Sometimes, of course, the humbling and leveling experiences of life help us out here.).

This is one of the major practical reasons for humility and honesty of heart, and of the constant efforts to value others highly—to be able to see the world as it really is...

But we can and should take this one step further. When I quoted Phil 2.4 above, some of you probably remembered the enjoined 'inequality' valuation in the previous verse: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Phil 2.3). How can we move from “equal values” to “others are better”?

At a practical level, some consider this quite simple. I had a professor decades ago explain his appropriation of this teaching: “I know more bad about myself—given my visibility in my internal heart and life—than I know about anyone else (from the outside), so it's easy for me to apply this.”

But the passage is probably not about intrinsic value, but rather about 'focus of service'. Thus, commentators can make this clear:

“As with humility, this does not mean that one should falsely consider others 'better.' As v. 4 will clarify, we are so to consider others, not in our estimation of them—which would only lead to the very vices Paul has just spoken against—but in our caring for them, in our putting them and their needs ahead of our own. After all, this is precisely how Christ's humility expressed itself, as Paul narrates in v. 8. Thus, it is not so much that others in the community are to be thought of as 'better than I am', but as those whose needs and concerns 'surpass' my own.” [NICNT, in loc.]

Strictly speaking, in a group of value-peers, one could focus on their own value, since it would be equal to others' values, without deprecating the value of others in that process; but the nature of need-meeting (requiring various skills, contribution, abilities, gifts, resources, etc. to meet the wide range of needs required for community/personal fulfillment), means that one has to be outward looking, seeking to find places to 'apply' one's abilities. For a simple analogy of this, a barber cannot (generally—smile) apply his skills only to himself—the utility/expression of that ability requires focusing on the needs of others. Thus, in a community with heterogeneous people, this peer-valuation will manifest itself practically in an outward-focus (“focus on the needs of others”).

There is one more element, however, that needs to be interjected into this view: the “unexpected” servant-orientation of the highest-value, God. When a hierarchically superior value DOES intrude upon a value-peered group, it 'relativizes' all the members, and creates an “exemplar” force upon the other agents. When God becomes a part of the group, then our values become subordinate to His, but when His values are for our welfare, we get a beautiful, grace-dance of love and interaction. And in Pauline thought, this nets out at 'serve one another'. Notice how in the same Philippians chapter he can use Timothy as an example of this:

For I have no one else a of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 2.20)

In other words, the highest value in the system (i.e., the interests of Christ) is focused on the welfare of the lower elements! (This is, obviously, in contrast with the interests of an AO--"it's all about ME"). This is the example of Christ in that chapter, who – even being equal to God—took on the role of servant for us 'low ones' (and simultaneously, btw, focused on the interests of the Father, which was about reconciliation of us 'low ones'!).

[The example of Christ, btw, is the case which undermines my professor's earlier approach. Christ humbled himself, putting our needs first in the Incarnation and then at the Cross, but did so without the slightest admission of imperfection. In other words, His humility , and 'treating Glenn as more important than Himself' had nothing to do with Him 'knowing more bad about Himself, than about Glenn' (!!!!). Humility is NOT about bad/ugly/self-deprecation—it's about good/beauty/other-honoring.]

That's all I want to say about this tonight, but I might make a 'rampant speculation'. When the highest value 'contains in itself' an outward-focus, rather than an inward-focus, this makes the most sense in a Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead, within which there are three Persons, focusing in love on One Another. Apart from some pathological God-dependent-on-creation theologies, the only way an outward focus can “exist eternally and intrinsically” in God, is if there are Persons “within God” who do this “eternally and intrinsically”...Trinitarianism does the best job of 'explaining' this feature in our value systems.

I have more to write, but I will have to postpone it until I get some more time...

Headed for Thanksgiving—my favorite time of the year,




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