Sunday, January 26, 2014

Low symbolic hedge?

January 26, 2014

Dear Friends,

When I sent Chicken Little home to roost the sigh of collective relief was clearly audible (smile). I am reminded all over again how widely people differ in their choice of toys for the mind and the way in which they play.

However, I want to leave a serious postscript to the idea Chicken Little attempted to express. Carolyn Arends, songwriter and author, recently wrote an intriguing column titled “God in Costume: Why we need symbols in order to see him.” (Christianity Today, Jan/Feb 2014) Her work is well worth a trip online ( to read. 

Arends argues that our capacity to see God in the ordinary of everyday life is linked to the availability of “potent symbols” in our social context together with our ability (and willingness) to use symbol in the construction of meaning. 

Arends has the able support of folk like Philip Rieff, Allan Bloom, and Ronald Rolheiser (The Shattered Lantern) whom she cites in her argument. Arends (in company with Rieff, Bloom and Rolheiser) refers to a limited capacity to identify and use symbols as a “low symbolic hedge.” 

Chicken Little (on Hubbard’s behalf) argues further that chronic functioning characterized by a “low symbolic hedge” may be evidence of low level skills in the willing suspension of disbelief. 

Symbols are tricky things.

This week the Sunday edition of my local newspaper carries pictures of new (and very expensive) sports cars. They are “real” cars, sitting on “real” lots owned by “real” car dealers.  They are at the same time symbols, whether we consciously will them to serve this symbolic function or not.

According to the “just-the-facts” approach to cognitive behaviors, human use of symbols is best when limited to mental representations of objects and “natural” processes and relationships. This idea reflects a fallacy, however.

Cognitively it is incredibly difficult—if indeed possible at all—to see a “thing” without that “thing” registering mentally as both ‘thing’ and  the additional reality of what that ‘thing’ symbolizes. While the pictures of Porsche, BMW, and Ferrari are indeed representations of objects parked on a dealer’s lot, when I look at them these pictures simultaneously represent an object…a car…and… whatever that object may symbolize for me.

For example, the simultaneous linkage may be car and the sense: only for the rich (and I am not a rich person and cannot have one of these). Or the linkage may be car and the sense: only for the rich (and I am a rich person and I could have one of these if I choose). The linkage may be car and unwise use of money; or car and toy; or car and longing for what I cannot achieve; or car and wordless wanting, my unacknowledged addiction to things. 

You can see that the idea of symbol-free thinking is much easier to talk about than to act into reality.

I have a deep uneasiness about the tricky way in which a representation of something (a book, a car) can so sneakily become a symbol without my fully informed consent. I am convinced that faith is far more than the manipulation of symbol-based meaning. Nevertheless, I believe that discipleship of the mind calls us to face straight on the symbols with which we consciously and unconsciously choose to think.

I celebrate with you our daily invitation into the mysterious world of God’s reality. I am thinking today of one particular door and its symbols through which we are invited to enter into this reality. We come to a table on which simple objects from daily life are placed—the bread and wine of common existence. But there we meet in fact and in symbol another reality—the reality of the broken body, the fact that another’s death now gives us life. I find Arend’s conclusion worth quoting.  We have been invited, she writes, “…into the drama of a mysterious and wonderful gospel—a truth stranger (in the best possible way) than fiction.” 

With you, seeking to raise my symbolic hedge so that I live comfortably, conscious with great joy of God’s present kingdom.
See you next week.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Go to roost, Little Chicken

January 19, 2014

Dear friends,

All right. Enough already. Today we will put Chicken Little to rest.

Chicken Little’s story emerged from my argument that discipleship of the mind entails conscious monitoring of the intellectually empty calories we consume. Choosing good nutrition for mental health and spiritual vigor requires discernment, however. Just as in the process of purchasing food at the market, when choosing material for the mind the package is not always a reliable indicator of the value of the content. 

I intended for Chicken Little’s story to serve as a case in point. Chicken Little’s adventure story was packaged with no indication of gravitas, certainly no challenge to serious thinking was indicated. What can be more foolish than a children’s story in which the major character appears as an anthropomorphized animal, and a chicken at that? Nevertheless, appearances to the contrary, I set out to show that the narrative deals with a serious human problem. 

One of the essential difficult life lessons we must all grapple with involves learning that personal experience while real in its impact is not, however, an easy or reliable guide to wisdom.  Something did indeed happen to Chicken Little, and both his consequent headache and his fear were real.  None the less, despite the reality of his experience, the explanation that Chicken Little constructed to give meaning to his experience did not serve as a reliable road to truth.

Chicken Little’s adventure spoke both to the value of community, and its limitations. Chicken Little was not alone (others shared his concern). Chicken Little’s community was all too easily infected by his fear, however.

The story (at least as I recounted it) spoke both to the value and the limitations of searching for answers; there is great value in Chicken Little’s effort to warn his community of the alleged danger and so make his personal experience serve the common good. There was severe limitation in relying upon the community’s response, however; communal response did not insure communal wisdom.

The story’s ending spoke both to the value and the limitations of tangible evidence and the process of empirical research. The wisdom of the Lion King—going to the environment in which the incident occurred, and looking for further information there—this is the road to wisdom whether in learning that there is no bear under the bed at four years of age, or, at forty years of age, determining if pesticides that kill bugs damage human tissue when ingested.  But the story is reliable in its faithful account of the limitations of human knowing: there was no piece of fallen sky to be found. There was, however, that tangible, clearly present acorn, and the tantalizing possibility that there was a relationship (not yet proven) between that acorn and Chicken Little’s headache and his dramatic conclusion about the untrustworthy sky.

Lots of worth-thinking-about stuff to be packed in a children’s story of a chicken’s adventure in searching for a breakfast bug. Despite its category label, there was potentially more than empty intellectual calories in Chicken Little’s story.

Last week I suggested, however, that getting to this material required the willing suspension of disbelief, a thinking skill in which we temporary lay aside our focused attention on the reality of “the real world and its objects” (the chair upon which you are sitting, the screen upon which you read these words), and choose another reality of experience into which we enter temporarily. This other reality is just that—another reality—and not unreality as our materialistic cultural world view would argue.

Travel to this virtual reality provides the great advantage of learning that is remotely attached to experience (it’s a good thing if we can learn via narrative rather than experience that touching a “live” wire will produce at best a nasty shock, and at worst bring quick death. Direct experience, contrary to proverb, is not always the best teacher.  And in the search for answers to particular categories of questions, direct experience has only a limited capacity to tell truth, and great potential to distort the evidence it presents.

In one essential dimension of life, we can, so to speak, come to know Aslan, the Great Lion, only if we travel through the wardrobe door.

The season of Epiphany is not an invitation to see things that are not there. Neither is it an encouragement to disregard the real chair over which I may stumble if I am “out of touch” with the reality of the concrete.  Epiphany is an encouragement to see and live in the multiworld reality of a tattered, tired world, suffering with its limits and its realities, scarred by its cruelties, but, none-the-less, suffused with beauty, rich in love, and carrying beyond my ability to describe, the kingdom of God that is both already and not yet.

Thinking with you that the richness of life flows from the wisdom to develop conscious awareness and pragmatic skills in all the realities of my life.

See you next week.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

January 12, 2014

Dear friends,

On the infrequent occasions when desk-cleaning occurs at my house the activity resembles a mini-archeological dig. In doing this, I find, as do archaeologists everywhere, that not everything that surfaces in a “dig” has value. 

On desk-cleaning day, many fragments of my “previous life” that come to the surface are immediately dispatched to the waste basket where, truth be told, an efficient clean-desk person would have deposited them on the very first occasion they appeared. I am not by habit a clean-desk person, however, and, regrettably, not likely to become so in this life. Consequently, for me desk-clearing carries a challenge. I must both identify and dispose of the rubble and, at the same time, identify and keep those things of value. The fate of an expired coupon for a bargain large-size piazza is not difficult to determine. Other things require more thought.

This week I found a torn fragment from a notepad with a single phrase written on it: the willing suspension of disbelief.

Good grief, I thought to myself, and promptly threw the paper in the wastebasket. Belatedly recalling the initial reason for that kept bit of waste paper, I then retrieved it, and put it in the stack of items to be carried upstairs to my study. Unpretentious as it appeared, this scrap of paper carried a reminder of an idea that I wanted to think more about, and then use in a blog. 

The idea itself is not new, and certainly did not originate in my thinking. The willing suspension of disbelief is a concept at least as old as Aristotle, and in its current coinage occurs in the work of Samuel Coleridge. 

The use I want to make of this idea, however, is connected to my Chicken Little story. (You didn’t really think I had forgotten that, did you? No such easy out for readers in 2014.) Whether we are dealing with a story Jesus told or the Hubbard revision of the old children’s tale of Chicken Little, making meaning from narrative content often requires a complex thinking skill that utilizes the willing suspension of disbelief.

Suppose, for example, we are considering the story of the sower, as Jesus told it [Matt.13].  There was a farmer that went out to sow, we read (or hear read aloud), and, in our minds, we shape an image of a virtual reality in which a man carrying a bag of seed over his shoulder walks toward a field. The clarity and vividness of this mental picture varies from individual to individual, of course, depending upon an individual's unique “brain wiring” and the interest that the opening segment of the story has evoked. 

These differences incorporate a complex, wordless choice in common, however. For a moment (sometimes just an instant) the reader (or hearer) knowingly assumes a cognitive position of belief rather than disbelief. As the story begins we realize that the man going out to sow does not exist in the same reality as the chair on which we are sitting. However, knowing this, in order to pursue the possible meaning carried by the narrative, we grant this mental image its own temporary measure of reality.

The experience of seeing a play pivots around this willingness to suspend disbelief. When the theater curtain rolls back, we quickly, unconsciously suspend our disbelief. The particle board palm tree and the painted cardboard sand dunes morph seamlessly into a desert oasis.

Film provides an equally powerful experience in which we suspend disbelief. At times the experience can be so powerful that, leaving a theater, we experience a momentary sense of disorientation as though we were held for an instant between two worlds. We are conscious that we are no longer in that virtual reality in which we have just spent two hours (ticket by means of willing suspension of disbelief), but we also sense that we have not yet fully re-entered that other reality in which our daily lives play out.

Properly understood, willing suspension of disbelief is not denial of reality, nor is it distortion of sensory data. Rather, it is a complex thinking process that organizes sense data into a virtual reality in which a given cognitive goal can be explored. Willing suspension of disbelief is both more than and less than imagination; it is both more and less than faith (ideas to explore another day). It can be used to pursue truth, to distort it, to obscure it. The cognitive goal remains independent from the process.
For now, consider a question. Can—will?—you suspend your disbelief in the Chicken Little story?  Will you consider the possibility that by the willing suspension of disbelief that Chicken Little’s frightening experience can increase our understanding that personal experience has serious limitations in teaching truth?

Thinking with you that the willing suspension of disbelief permits us to enter Narnia, and learn there, to travel with Bilbo and Frodo, to go and then come home again, and to understand that the Kingdom of God as Jesus knew, is now.

See you next week.


P.S.  If the holidays have pushed Chicken Little’s adventure out of your mind, you can refresh your memory by reading the blogs for  November 17 and November 24.