Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Knowledge vs Relation

Thought that came to me tonight while driving in my car: the conflict between Neoplatonism & Christianity (and more broadly between Christianity & a lot of ancient philosophy) can be boiled down to the question of whether we attain union with God, ultimately, through knowledge or relation.
Expanded a little, the question is whether we attain union with God through the conscious operations of our natural intellect, or through a supernatural relation that transcends the intellect (i.e. the Incarnation).
I don't think I'll ever get over just how intelligent the Late Antique Neo-Platonist pagan religious-philosophical consensus was. A vast, hierarchical universe with innumerable powers, but the absolutely transcendent One as the source and summit of it all--a vast, hierarchical human society where people are constantly reincarnated in higher or lower positions based on their merit. At the bottom of the hierarchy, you worship daimons, lesser entities, through blood sacrifice, because they have power over your physical life and must be propitiated. A little higher up in the social ladder, you worship gods, slightly higher, more intelligent entities that exemplify beauty and courage and social virtues. At the very peak, philosophers learn about and contemplate the One directly, setting aside all creation, and achieve true union with him.
As a system, it's brilliant, an almost perfect, symphonic summing up of ancient pagan philosophy as a whole: philosophy subsumes pagan religion into itself, monotheism triumphs over polytheism, yet absolutely nothing is disturbed. To just about everyone, it makes sense. If you're an ordinary pagan, an illiterate peasant or an urban worker or slave, you can agree that yes, you worship capricious gods with sacrifice because they are very close to you and have power over you, over whether you are healthy or sick, whether your crops grow and you eat or they fail and you starve, whether your master frees you or crucifies you. Maybe there's a One God out there, but he has little to do with you and the physical and social world you know, and you're quite satisfied with that so long as things work out for you in the here and now. If you're a philosopher, sheltered from all this harsh world by your social status, you can feel very good about the fact that you alone, who dedicate your life to understanding the difficult arguments to prove the existence of the One transcending all things, to contemplating the nature and attributes of the One God, will attain union with him through these efforts. Everyone, too, gets what they immediately want. The peasant gets rituals to ensure his crops grow and protect him from evil spirits, the Emperor gets social rituals to ensure his citizens obey him, the philosopher gets true knowledge, virtue, and union with Being itself. And, of course, if you do a good job as a peasant, you might one day end up reincarnated as a philosopher, with a shot at the Big Time. Nothing is lost, everything is conserved, and absolutely everyone is made to be content with their lot in life.
Against this, Christianity's stubborn insistence that people of all social classes and levels of intellectual sophistication were immediately called to true and transcendent union with the One God couldn't help but seem both revolutionary and a little absurd. Why should an illiterate slave get the same union with the One as a philosopher? Why would he even want it, and how could he possibly get it even if he did? The slave understands nothing about what the philosopher means by the One; it is not something he knows about, and so not something he can even coherently desire, let alone attain. Christian philosophers certainly understood this problem--but, to a man, they only insisted on it even more the more it was challenged by their pagan colleagues. The slave would get the same thing as the philosopher--indeed, he would get something denied to the pagan philosopher altogether. No one had any business with daimons or lesser gods, since they were all directly and immediately called to union with the One God. The slave would desire God, he would live a life of supernatural virtue far beyond the efforts of philosophers, and attain to an eternal and supernatural union with the One surpassing all the philosophers' desires.
Their answer to how this was possible was, of course, the Incarnation: the coming of the Logos, of the Divine Reason itself, into the physical cosmos, his becoming a human being. God had not left the cosmos or human society as it was--he had come down into it and was now engaged in a death struggle with the rebellious daimons and lesser gods and Emperors who were trying to oppose his reign. Because of this state of affairs, all Christians possessed a relation to God that went far beyond simple natural knowledge. The slave might not understand precisely what the philosopher (even the Christian philosopher) meant by the One, but he stood in relation with that One nonetheless, and could confess the simple creed of Christ's Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection, be baptized in his name, and so be brought into a direct and intimate relation with him, incorporated as part of the body of God himself. By virtue of this, even if the Christian were entirely ignorant, even if he were an eight-day-old infant newly baptized without even the benefit of language, he had, really and truly, attained the highest end of philosophy: the real, actual possession of the Divine Logos.
Against this, philosophers quite naturally protested. Such "faith," the simple assent of the will to a series of nonsensical propositions about the life, death, and supposed divinity of a Galileean carpenter, and participation in a nonsensical set of rituals focusing on that life and death, were no substitute for careful, reasoned apprehension of the philosophical arguments and meditations on the Divine Nature. Christians were ignorant slaves and women who, in an outrageous display of sheer arrogance, dared to claim themselves superior to philosophers who spent their lives studying the divine and contemplating it. They were not true philosophers at all, but madmen, the very lowest of social malcontents.
This was a bitter controversy indeed in its heyday, and both sides certainly drew blood. It can, though, again, be boiled down very simply to the binary of relation or knowledge. For the Neo-Platonist, the natural intellect, working in its own laborious way, with plenty of time and intelligence and social status to work with, was the only possible way to get knowledge of God, and this knowledge was the only possible way to be united with him. For the Christian, all this laborious natural effort, in time and space, could hardly include the vast majority of humanity, naturally fell into all kinds of error, and even where perfectly accurate could not possibly attain its goal, actual union with God. Only a supernatural effort by God himself could establish an actual relation and true union between creature and creator--and once that was established, the operations of the natural, unaided intellect were hardly the only or even the most important thing in the picture. Faith included the intellect, certainly, it could not possibly oppose it (which is why many Christians eagerly did philosophy and laboriously worked through all those arguments anyway)--but it also went far beyond it. Christian faith was a real supernatural relation between human being and God, and that relation included illiterate Christians and infants just as much as Christian philosophers.
I could go on and on and on on this topic, which represents a rather fundamental break both in philosophy and world history, with massive implications for society and culture and art and everything else--I could expand on it with some analysis of the relation this controversy has, in my opinion, to the later controversies of the Protestant Reformation--but I think I will stop there and go to bed instead. Goodnight.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Time and the Self

I have a very good memory, and this is both a blessing and a curse. The line that separates my self in the present from my self in the past is generally very thin. When I am reminded of what I have been before, and most of all when I exist in a place that I have existed before--I experience with immediacy what I once experienced, I perceive in one and the same place my self doubled, tripled, multiplied. This is the strange, miraculous thing, though: that I am all these selves, or rather that there is only one self present, not two, or three, or a multitude. The multiplicity is in fact only an illusion, an error of perspective. This is what I am seeing, hearing, feeling, this is what I saw, heard, felt. I am, I was, here, then. I am here now. This certainly has its downsides, especially when it comes to those things that it is difficult to remember. Much of my life, in fact, I spent in a futile and dangerous effort to escape from what was already past. It is also, in itself, a rather dangerous and deceptive perspective on life. There is, in fact, a difference between what is past and what is present and what is to come. What is present is open to potentiality, open to our action and causation. If we live in the present, we can learn to live well--if we live only in the past, we cannot learn at all anything which we did not already learn then. Only from the perspective of the present can we accept and suffer the past, overcome it and learn from it. The past, then, is the teacher for the present--the present is the space in which learning and action takes place. They should not be confused. Then, too, there is the danger of deception, when we remember falsely, when we perceive falsely. We can be deceived in the present, true, but never so completely as in the past. In the present, we can accept, we can discern, go beyond, learn--in the past, all too often, we find ourselves fixed, trapped, within a single, narrow perspective. What we did not see then will never be seen. All too often, too, we distort the truth of the past through the perspective of the present. We try to see ourselves in the past, but only see ourselves in the present, seeing the past, trapped by it. We lose sight of reality, of one another, are isolated and imprisoned within ourselves. Then, too, we do not remember everything, and so everything we remember is incomplete, partial, pieces to a puzzle with too many missing pieces. It is impossible to perceive the full and complete truth of any time from within such a limited perspectives. Still, one of the great tasks of life is to gradually learn, in the present, with the help of the past, to broaden and to perfect and to unify. In remembering, memory can be purified and perfected--it can become, as memory, something far more true than it was as immediate perception. A key instance of this is repentance, which is in truth a kind of remembering. We remember something as mistaken, as wrong, as false, and by remembering it in this way we perfect it. In repenting, in altering one's mind the past action, the past self, is completed, corrected, perfected. Here, too, is where the relational aspect of the person comes into its own, as we learn to to exist together, to live together, not only in the present, but in the past as well. By remembering together, by existing together, our perspectives are broadened, our reality is increased and perfected and guaranteed. The self is only really stable, it only really exists, in any time, when it exists with and in relation to others. It is, then, one of the great tasks of the human person as person, in time and space, to transcend time and space in just this way: to enrich and perfect and unify the self, all our selves, together and apart, across time and beyond it. Here, though, is the danger, the crux of the whole matter: that this is a task that is, in essence, beyond the grasp of the human person. We can, really, only affect the present--we are so easily deceived--our perspective is so small--we have so little time in which to live, to act, to remember. We, both as individuals and as a community, are unable to be the means by which past and present are unified, by which the self in all times and places is brought together and perfected. We fall through time, and so we cannot transcend it. God, however, is present in all times and in all places simultaneously, and is himself entirely apart from time. Only God can truly touch the past and the present simultaneously, perceive everything clearly, and affect the self at all points in time. This is why only God can forgive sins: because only God can actually touch the self in both past and present simultaneously, can truly alter the past as it is, not merely as it is remembered. He is the real means, the only conceivable means, by which the human person can be truly unified, truly perfected, truly taken beyond time. If God is real, then, memory, human memory, becomes far less important. This is a lesson I have had to learn--that all our efforts to broaden and purify the past, to overcome it, are, in the end, entirely vain. I lose myself in the past--I am unable to escape it, let alone perfect it. In losing myself in the past, I lose all the opportunities and potentialities of the present. I am deceived, lost in perceptions that are false, the present distorted by the past, and the past by the present. Unity gives way to total fragmentation. I have lived this. Given God, though, there is little to fear. The presence of God in past and present unifies the self, guarantees it. We do not have to labor to remember, for we are remembered--we do not have to labor to see, for we are seen. The reality of the self, in each and every time, comes only through God. Thus, any reality of the self beyond time can only come from, can only be entirely in the power of, God, and not the self. To accept this, to accept this ultimate ignorance, this ultimate powerlessness, is one of the most difficult and important things in life. It is this lesson, primarily, which time teaches us--that we are nothing. All our reality comes from God, and without him we have neither past, nor present, nor future. If we can accept this, though, then we will receive all that we have labored to achieve: truth, reality, eternity. We will receive, in the fullest possible sense, a future: a plane of reality, of possibility, entirely beyond both what has been and what is. Our future within time, along with our present and our past, will be taken up into the future beyond time. This is eschatology; the knowledge of, the desire for, the perfect fulfillment of human existence that can only take place through the transcendence of time. So, for now, we live, as best we can, in the present, learning from the past as best we can. The self, all our selves, interconnected and unified, is kept by God, in all times and beyond time. Such is life.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Immaculate Conception

Today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception does not merely mean that Our Lady was conceived without sin; it means that from the first moment of her existence, she had within her, as the principle of her every movement and thought and sensation and action, the flame of divine love that found its perfect fulfillment in the Incarnation and Cross of Christ. She was conceived in the divine love, and never allowed herself to be separated from it, following it faithfully all the days of her life.

Free from the egotism of sin, Mary loved more, not less. Hence, her sinlessness does not separate her from us in the slightest; rather, it draws her infinitely closer to us in love, as the most faithful of friends, the most trustworthy of mothers. She was sinless for the sake of sinners, so that she might more perfectly love us in our wretchedness, and more fully share in the outpouring of God's love for us on the Cross.

Standing by the Cross of her son, she alone saw him, and the horror and darkness of sin which he bore, perfectly and truly; and of all his disciples she shared most deeply in the pain of every one of his humiliations and wounds, which he suffered for our sakes.

Therefore, let no one fear to draw near to Mary, let no one believe that his sins have separated him from the Immaculate. The one who was conceived and born and lived her whole life aflame with God's love for sinners will not abandon us in any sin. She who is our Mother will never fail to lead us to her Son, so that by his blood we may be made pure as she is pure, without stain as she is without stain, full of love as she is full of love. Flee to Mary, and you will never be without refuge in all the storms of life.

O Maria concepta sine peccato, ora pro nobis qui ad te confugimus.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Reactionary Narratives

The real trouble with most reactionary historical narratives is that they tacitly assume the same kind of inevitable historical processes as the progressive narratives they claim to oppose.

Within such narratives, both past and present events are interpreted according to a hermeneutic not merely of suspicion or fear, but inevitable defeat. The idea, though, that the cosmos and its processes are not just contingently, but inevitably and naturally, aimed at the extinction of all the things you consider good and the promotion of all the things you consider bad is not, in fact, particularly conducive to continuing belief in these principles.

Such narratives frequently produce a siege mentality that is in essence nihilistic, since it is grounded not in a sincere belief in the (necessarily universal) truth of particular principles, or even in the (necessarily limited) duty of opposition to the particular evils of a given society, but rather in a profound insecurity or even despair on both of these counts. Deprived of a clear rational and universal basis for action and identity, merely sectarian and factional dynamics all too easily assume the dominant position: the mere principle of opposition to supposedly dominant and inevitable trends becomes, in fact, the true driving force, and the true end aimed at, by such groups.

Once this point is reached, however, it is no longer possible to set clear limits on the means by which goals may be achieved or evils opposed: and without such limits, the means chosen very often end up sabotaging or even destroying the original goods pursued--if, indeed, the overall goal of increasing and intensifying opposition does not lead people to actively and perversely further the processes they hate, as a means to facilitating further opposition.

The irony by which reactionaries end up frequently embracing the very evils which they opposed, and sacrificing the very goods which they sought, is thus no coincidence at all, but a natural outworking of the terms of much of reactionary discourse.

Note that my point here is not that it is not valid to acknowledge the possibility that the dominant forces of a particular society, time, or place may happen to be working against particular goods or in support of particular evils. Nor am I saying that it is wrong or useless to oppose inevitable historical processes that I do not believe exist or to look to the past for models for society. Bad trends should of course be opposed, no matter how dominant or pervasive in a given time and place; and past societies are one very natural place to turn for guidance on the organization of society and life in the present and future.

The point I *am* making, though, is that ascribing inevitability and universality to historical processes that you oppose is incredibly foolish, dangerous, and destructive, as well as horribly self-defeating, counterproductive, and ultimately self-contradictory.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Reformation Did Not Take Place

The Reformation Did Not Take Place

(With Apologies to Jean Baudrillard)

(Actually, This Should Really be Called 'The Reformation Did Take Place, Mostly, But Not Like You've Probably Heard,' But That's Not As Catchy)

Subtitle: I'm Really Sorry For How Long This Is

Second Subtitle: Really, I Am Sorry. Sorry.

[NB: This is not an academic essay. It's not even really an essay at all. It is, rather, something much more like a sketch of ideas and big-picture narratives for a potential essay, essays, book, or books to be written perhaps one day. I have, as a matter of a fact, read more, including scholarly work, about the Reformation than it might appear from this; but this is very deliberately not an essay with citations and references and sources or anything of the sort. It is, rather, a kind of intellectual synthesis of the things I've read and heard and thought on the topic, a sketch of a particular interpretation of history; or, better yet, the incoherent ramblings of a graduate student with a keyboard and far too much time on his hands. Do not take it as other than such.]

So what is the Reformation, anyway?

From the beginning of the year until now, news articles, television journalists, religious leaders, and Twitter accounts have all assured me that this year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; this event is duly being celebrated or at least commemorated by many people throughout the world.

Yet the great difficulty in commemorating--or writing about--the Reformation is trying to figure out just what people are actually commemorating--and what I'm actually writing about.

Still, those commemorations, and this essay, do in fact exist, for some reason or other. So let's take that as our starting point; 500 years ago, something happened--something important enough that it is still remembered five hundred years later.

This much, at least, we all seem to agree on: five hundred years ago this year, a monk named Martin Luther nailed some theses onto a door--or maybe he didn't, maybe that story's actually apocryphal, but anyway, this guy named Martin Luther clearly did something important; thereafter, lots of things happened, and have continued to happen ever since: Luther's German translation of the New Testament, the Peasant's Revolt, John Calvin writing The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Thirty Years War, the French Revolution, the Great Awakening, the Holocaust, the election of Donald Trump...

Which of these events are to be considered to be either part of or the result of "the Reformation" or Martin Luther's hammer, and how, differs a lot depending on just who you're reading, and when and where and why they're writing.

Still, if you want to write something about the Reformation, you have to come up with something. Stories, narratives, have their own rules; they need to have, among other things, characters, a plot you can follow, and generally some conscious themes as well. If you want to give a narrative of "the Reformation," you need to come up with all these things, somehow.

In some understandings, the Reformation seems to be taken, implicitly or explicitly, as nothing more than a historical period, covering, perhaps, the years from about 1500 until...1600, perhaps? 1800? Certainly, historical periods are very tricky things, constantly created and fought and refought and buried and resurrected and winced over by historians the world over--but they also have a neutrality to them, an objectivity, that can be quite comforting.

Still--if all we're talking about when we say "the Reformation" are the years between 1500 and 1600, we surely don't seem like it. After all--I don't know of too many people celebrating the beginning of Late Antiquity, or the Age of Exploration, these days. The Reformation--in whatever guise--is clearly something more than a particular set of years and whatever happened to take place during them: it is...shall we say, an event? An action?

Still, if the Reformation is an action, we're obliged to ask who did it; and if it is an event, we're going to need to figure out what happened. Certainly, Martin Luther nailing some pieces of paper to a door (if it actually happened) is both a single action, and a discrete historical event: this much is quite clear, which is perhaps why it is this event and action whose 500th anniversary is actually being celebrated this year. But when we say the Reformation, we do not merely mean this one action of Luther's--we do not merely mean all of Luther's actions. We are clearly talking about a whole set of different actions, carried out by innumerable different people and institutions over a very long period of time; actions that somehow add up to a single thing called "the Reformation."

There are, in fact, any number of ways to unify multiple events and actions into a single larger event or narrative--some perfectly reasonable, some not so much. In general, though, events are unified based on some kind of commonality: whether this is a common cause or effect or telos or time period or category. It is this which allows us, say, to talk about the Fall of the Roman Empire as a unified historical event--inasmuch, as say, the Sack of Rome, the deposition of Romulus Augustus by Theodoric, the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, and many other events and actions all shared as a common cause the breakdown of Imperial government in Western Europe, led to similar effects in furthering that breakdown, took place at around the same time, and shared many other similarities in kind and interrelationships as well.

In general, then, I have no problem with the unification of historical events and actions into larger events, narratives, and periods; but I also believe there are clear rational standards for when and where and how this can reasonably be done.

This may seem rather academic, but it is nevertheless important if we are to make sense of the Reformation, both as it actually was and as it has been understood and narrated in the past.

For make no mistake: the very concept of "the Reformation" is, for everyone who uses that term, indelibly marked with the narratives of the past people and institutions and societies who have used that term. When we speak of "the Reformation"--whether we are atheists or Catholics or Zoroastrians or Evangelicals--we are using terms, and thinking of stories, that we have not originated, but received. The fact that we think of the Reformation as a single, unified event to be commemorated--the fact that we see it as beginning with Martin Luther nailing some theses to a door--the fact that we even remember it today, and see it as important--the fact that we call it "the Reformation." These are all legacies of narratives and histories past.

Each one of these narratives made sense on its own terms--that is to say, each one answered the basic questions I have posed above in at least minimally satisfactory way. It explained what the Reformation was, how far it extended, and what commonalities unified its various deeds and happenings into a coherent event. Each one of these narratives also succeeded at least minimally as a narrative: that is, it supplied characters, themes, a plot, and events enough to maintain at least some interest in those who heard or read about it.

Our culture no longer really has such a narrative about the Reformation--indeed, even many of those who belong to groups that once had coherent narratives about the Reformation no longer really buy into them anymore. So we are left, more and more, with confusion.

This essay does not exactly aim at clearing up this confusion--to a great extent, it aims to increase it. Nevertheless, I will, naturally, end up telling some stories, and creating some big narratives, related in some way to "the Reformation" as a cluster of events and actions and concepts; and in doing so, I will be operating on the basis of the questions I have laid out here. I will be aiming always, that is, to clearly lay out on the common ends, categories, causes, or other similarities on the basis of which I am unifying--or separating--historical events.

Again, if all that bores you: I am going to tell some stories.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Faith and the Virgin

Protestants (of whom I formerly was one) entirely misunderstand the Catholic Faith when they do not understand that its truthfulness, its veracity, its reality is not merely something that is demonstrated beforehand in each particular, but rather something that is seen and grasped and known fully only in practice, as a totality.
The Faith is the term of relation between God and man, between God and human beings together and individually; it is only in this relationship that its Sacraments and its dogmas find their meaning. When coming from the outside, especially, one properly has recourse to rational demonstrations of the Faith's basic truthfulness, and of the rational consistency or necessity of various individual doctrines. But once inside, most of what is learned is learned not through abstract demonstration, but through the actual, faithful practice of the Faith. This Faith, once accepted, becomes an object of ever-deepening reflection, and quite practical experience and demonstration. Only thus is it be finally proven as a thing beyond all doubt.
The greatest example of this basic principle is the devotion paid within the Church to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. To Protestants, this is something utterly bewildering, even frightening; which is, all things considered, fairly natural. All the doctrines of the Church concerning the Virgin Mary can be found, indeed, in some form in the Scriptures; but the basic datum of the Catholic Faith concerning Mary--a perception of her as immeasurably precious and worthy of honor, the greatest possible source of help, a participant in a direct and loving maternal relationship with the Church as a whole and the individual believer--is not an abstract proposition found literally in the Bible taken as a simple text: it is an awareness that is gained only through the actual practice of relating to Mary. It is from this relationship, taken in conjunction with Revelation written and unwritten, and NOT from the text of the Scripture taken in isolation, that all the Catholic dogmas about Mary arise.
The Catholic devotion to Mary arose because it is real; that is, it is something which it is in the power of every man, certainly every Christian, to carry out, and so to test for himself. When a man makes this test, he will discover certain things, not as doubtful deductions from a text, but direct and practical certainties of the sort that form the basis of all human lives and all relationships. He will *know* that Mary is good, and loving, and beautiful, and that it is a good thing to show her honor, and to ask her for help. He will *know* that this honor is pleasing to God and to Christ, that through it God gives him graces and blessings and true knowledge of Him. He will find that the more he honors Mary, the closer he draws to her, the more he calls on her for help in his weakness--the more too will he actually find himself loving Christ, praying to him and adoring him with simplicity and trust, knowing him not as an abstraction but as a living human being and a living God. He will find, too, that the more he loves and cherishes Mary for the sake of God, the more he is able to see his neighbor as worthy of honor and of cherishing love, to perceive him with eyes of mercy, and love him with the love of Christ. All of these things will be to him--as they are to me--practical, tested facts of experience. They certainly will be explicated, enhanced, and buttressed by the declared dogmas of the Church concerning Mary, and the words of Scripture where she finds mention; but their certainty and reality will not be based merely on these things.
It is, in fact, from this undying font of devotion that the Church drew the stated facts of her dogmas, and the enjoined precepts of her practices, concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the 5th century, the brilliant Patriarch Nestorius condemned the popular practice of honoring her as the Mother of God--but against Nestorius, in the humble devotion of Christians and the words with which they called upon the Virgin, the Church found the seeds of the most profound and the truest account of the nature of Christ, and, eventually, of human nature itself. This basic pattern is repeated in every age: the wise condemn the devotion of the people for Mary, yet in the end it is from this devotion that there is born the most subtle, the wisest, and the truest ideas of philosophy and theology.
I hope and pray that all of you will, like me, come to know the great goodness and love of Mary, a simple human being like us, created out of nothing, who standing in the room of Nazareth received into her body and soul the ineffable Godhead and gave him her flesh for our salvation, and who standing by the Cross of Christ suffered with him and so became the Mother of all humanity, and of each one of us. It is by her and her human love that God wills to manifest to each one of us his eternal love.
It is a certain truth that Mary loves us and intercedes for us with God; and it is one that each one of us ought to test for ourselves.

A Personal Anecdote

People are endlessly fascinating. If I ever were to write the story of my life, much of it would consist (as does GKC's autobiography) of random anecdotes and descriptions of people I've encountered or spoken to along the way. I value the tiniest amount of genuine personal experience and insight over a thousand terrabytes of scientific data: and a large part of what I've learned about the world I've learned merely from engaging with people.

Today, an experience reminded me of an encounter that made a profound impact on me at the time, and has shaped my thinking in a lot of areas since. It was probably three or four years ago now, during my undergraduate years at a fairly small Evangelical school in the South. It was summer, a blazing, humid, grubby little summer day of the sort that only Alabama at its worst seems to produce. I was on my way home, walking across campus to meet my father, when I saw something I've never been able to forget: a very elderly African-American man, dressed in the uniform of a UPS delivery man, pushing a heavy package on a handcart. What made me stop and turn around, though, was the fact that this old man could barely walk: he was completely disabled, unable to stand on his own, and as I walked easily by, he was using the handcart as a walker, inching his way painfully a footstep at a time, barely moving at all, and sweating profusely in the miserable heat.

The campus was not crowded at this time, but there were people occasionally walking by--young, healthy men and women who could have moved the cart ten times faster than he. Almost all ignored him. I remember vividly a young woman walking by and giving him a kindly, indulgent smile. I am not quite sure what she was smiling about.

Anyway, after a moment or two of thought, I retraced my steps, and offered to help the old man take his package the hundred or so feet to the building he was going to--a journey that would have taken me probably less than a minute. To my surprise, he absolutely refused my offer. It was, he told me, sweating and shaking from the heat and the exertion of his task, against UPS's rules to allow anyone but him to deliver the package, for safety and liability reasons: and if I were to be injured somehow in delivering it, he would get into severe trouble. The odds of me being injured pushing a handcart a hundred feet across pavement were, of course, infinitesimally low; but when I tried to say this, he grew even more strident in his refusals. I, he insisted, had a future. I was here at this university to get an education and make it in the world. If I were to be injured helping "some old black man," he was sure, my parents would be absolutely furious. They wouldn't understand my behavior at all! They paid good money to send me to school so I could get an education and make something of myself. They didn't want me helping "some old black man."

There was very little I could do at that point; but I stayed nearby him, at least, as the scenario grew (to my eyes) ever stranger and more surreal. There I was, a young, healthy man, standing silently while a disabled old man pushing a handcart sweated and shook and insisted, in the very strongest of terms, that no one would either want or allow me to help him. The old man's already snails' pace slowed even further as he continued to talk to me, losing all awareness of time or space, repeating the same phrases over and over again, embellishing them with dismal claims about the nature of society and anecdotes from his life and those of people he knew. I'm afraid I no longer remember most of them. I don't know if he got some kind of enjoyment or catharsis from shouting at me; I hope he did. In any event, I had no intention of leaving him.

So there we went, for about half an hour in the end, covering less ground than I could have in fifteen seconds. The more I listened, the sadder and the more angry I became; not at him, but at the horror of what I was witnessing: an old, disabled man, in a supposedly just and prosperous society, at a Christian university no less, killing himself for the smallest bit of livelihood.

Eventually, he (somehow) reached his destination, and delivered his package. By that time, I had belatedly offered to get him some bottled water at least; and this he had accepted. The administrator whose package it was received him with another kindly, indulgent smile (again a reaction I found puzzling, to say the least) and offered him a temporary rest in the air-conditioned interior. I brought him some bottled water, and at this point, he did thank me, wearily but sincerely. Then he said farewell, and we parted; and I have never seen him since. Possibly he is out there still, struggling to deliver packages.

This experience had a profound impact on me, to say the least; though for the moment I told no one of what had happened. I have rarely talked of it since. Relationships are too important and too mysterious to be publicized wantonly, or turned into anecdotes whose only point is their impact on the one who experiences them; and this old man and I had formed a relationship, no matter how strange, during the half-an-hour in which we sweated outside in the Alabama heat.

Laid out like this, you could make this anecdote about any number of different things. Race, certainly; class, most definitely; a lack of respect for the elderly and the disabled, naturally; not to mention, of course, an economic system and a society that systematically prizes money and convenience over human persons and their needs. But to take a person and his sufferings and make him *about* an issue is to miss the whole point. Really, it's the other way around.

An old man, a person, has suffered for most of his life grave injustice in the midst of great prosperity; and his suffering has been ignored and overlooked by those who could have helped him. That is the point; that is the reality. I don't know--I don't need to know, necessarily--who exactly or what precisely caused that to be: though I believe the most fully fitting term would be "sin." But whatever caused this to happen, whether it be human malice or indifference or culture or racism or economic systems or even the iron laws of fate itself--whatever caused this should be destroyed. That much I am sure of, and always will be.