Sacred Dance #2: VW Vans and the Johari Window Blind

January 28, 2009

Several years ago, but long after Sheila and I had been married, I said something that made her double over laughing. And it was completely unintentional on my part.

In the 1970s – while my parents were on a vacation in Europe, my great aunt took me and one of my cousins on a road trip to her home in California. Along the way, I got to see all kinds of things: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Disney Land, San Francisco, etc.

Sheila knew this already. This was a pretty important event in my life. But in all my prior accounts of the story, I had left out one detail. The journey was made in a Volkswagen van.

During the 80s and 90s, vans of this nature have come to acquire some pretty strong stereotypes. Many have come to think of them as vehicles that were painted with rainbow designs and flowers, and driven by hippies. These hippies, in turn, are often stereotypically associated with California. When people think of VW vans, no one thinks of my great aunt (definitely not a hippy) and her then practical need for a reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle with space, which could also travel a lot of miles cross-country.

So….moving back to the original story: one day we spotted an old VW van on the road, and – looking at the van – I stated something like this to some people who were with us at the time: You know, one time I went to California in a VW van.

The image that this conjured was too much for Sheila to handle: Me. Dressed as a hippy. Smoking who-knows-what. Listening to the Beatles. In the back of a colorfully painted VW van on the road to California.

She didn’t think that I was serious. She thought I was mocking her own latent hippy sensibilities. But I wasn’t. And eventually, after she calmed down, I managed to give her the rest of the story.

Now, before I told this story, if you had asked Sheila if she knew me, she would have looked at you very strangely, and said “Well, of course I know him. He’s my husband.”

But did she? Here you had a formative experience in my life that she’d never seen in this particular light. And up until then, she knew nothing about the fact that it involved countless hours of travel in a VW van.

You can spend every day of your life with a spouse, a child, a friend, a co-worker, a partner, and never completely know them. We don’t have magical psychic links to each other. We only know what they consciously or unconsciously reveal about themselves to us, and what others might say about them.

In 1955, psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham invented a conceptual model for visualizing the way we know other people (and/or the way we are known by them). They called it the “Johari window.” (The “Johari” part was an amalgamation of their first names.) Here is what it looks like:

The concept is fairly straightforward. In the upper left hand corner are things that you know about yourself, and that are known by others. In the lower left had corner are things that others don’t yet know about you. In this illustration, that quadrant is called a Facade, but you shouldn’t presume that this means you are being “fake” – it simply means that there is a portion of you that is not yet known.

The right hand side represents things that others might observe about you, but you don’t know about yourself and things that are unknown both to you and to others.

It is a fairly simple concept, which recognizes that we are never fully known to others, nor do we ever fully know others. We are reliant on what they know about themselves and what they choose do disclose, and they are likewise reliant on our self-perceptions and decisions about self disclosure.

For simplification, lets ignore the right hand side of the diagram, and imagine a simple window blind instead. Imagine that we can pull the blind up and down a little. If it is a Venetian blind, we can also choose to open it a lot or a little, revealing more or less about ourselves. We can lift up one the corner of the individual shingles and provide a little more information about what’s behind the window. But no matter how hard we try, we’re never going to get it fully open, because we are limited by language, time, and numerous other factors.

One of the most significant limiting factors in how “open” the blinds will become is simply that we don’t want others to know everything about us. Disclosure of our true selves can be a very risky proposition. Do I really want you to know what I think about that political issue? That I have this strange personal quirk? That I find something about your appearance to be unattractive?

Think about the process of courtship and dating, for example. Probably, when a couple first begins to see each other, they are very guarded in what they disclose. However, hopefully, over time, they will slowly learn more and more.

This process of getting to know each other is very much a give-and-take process, with lots of ups and downs. If you react positively to one thing I say, I may go out on a limb and say something that puts me even more at risk, but if you seem hesitant or scared, I may have to “shelve” a particular piece of history for a while. By the same token, I want to get to know you, but not too quickly. Give me too much information at once, and I may get overwhelmed with trying to process it all.

The way we  come to know each other, and the way we reveal ourselves to others is – of necessity – a slow, tedious and very uncertain process. It is an awkward dance, of sorts.

Now, finally, to the point.

Since the only “tools” that we have for getting to know God are the skills we develop and use in forming human relations, it seems to me our ability to know God would be limited in the same ways that we are limited in getting to know each other.

(Some of you may already be thinking that both processes are integrated with one another – that we encounter God in human relationships. If so, then, hold that thought – we’ll explore it in more detail later. For the time being, however, lets just stick with the assumption that we are talking about two different processes.)

In fact, I would say that it is a much, much more difficult process. God, whose personality is so infinitely complex that we need to think of him as taking the form of at least three people in order to even begin to grasp his nature, is necessarily going to be much more difficult to “know” than a friend or co-worker, who can (usually!) be conceptualized as having no more than one personality.

As is the case with all of our human relationships, and even more because of his unique nature, God will always be both known and unknown at the same time.

A healthy respect for this paradox is, I think, at the heart of any decent theological system, and it is certainly understood by most – if not all – of the biblical witnesses. Now we see as through a mirror darkly, Paul once wrote. And he was exactly right. We can, perhaps, make out dim shapes of the divine at times, but we are making a grave mistake if we think our perception is one of complete clarity.

To say that God is holy, I think, is to recognize the unknown qualities of God – that we don’t know. Not fully.

But is this simply a result of our own limitations, or does God, as I have already suggested, play his own brand of “hide and seek” with us, pulling the blinds closed at one moment, and then popping open a shingle or two when we least expect? Are there times when he intentionally moves in and out of our “relational” field of vision? And if so, why?

I think that the biblical witnesses and most theological systems address these questions in a limited way, and the next post will explore what I think is a fairly universal answer amongst Jews and Christians to the “why” part of that question.

Up next: If looks could kill (literally or otherwise).

Sacred Dance #1: Hide and Seek

January 19, 2009

Being something of a science fiction geek, I sometimes like to imagine what it would be like if alien archaeologists ran across the ruins of our civilization. What would they make of us?

Take one of the most basic issues that has defined human civilization: does God exist? In our history, they would find accounts of a great many people – easily tens of thousands, possibly millions –  who were quite sure that they had a personal encounter with the divine. But they would also no doubt see that most of us never had such an experience. Many of those are still “religious” in some sense, but never really claim to have had an undeniable divine encounter. We live – so to speak – on “faith.”

I think this discovery would seem quite odd. Did some of us experience God or not? The number of claims is so great that charlatanism alone can’t account for them. So…what is the explanation? Mass delusion? Some evolutionary psychological quirk?

Or is God just playing games with us?

If those of us who are believers are honest – and I’m including monotheists of just about any form here – I think we will admit that our own experiences are not always consistent. We have moments where we are certain that God is near – our hair stands on end, we marvel at some blessing that results from the most unlikely coincidence or at a turn in some illness that seemed hopeless. Then… poof! The feeling, the experience is gone. Things don’t work out as well as we thought. The illness comes back. And deep inside, we begin to question whether anything of divine  origin happened in the first place. We ask whether the whole thing was a delusion. Then, we look at the stars, reflect for a moment, and decide it doesn’t make sense that things just happened. And the pendulum begins to swing back the other way.

Doubt and belief come and go like day and night.

My guess is that an honest atheist will tell you she is on the same intellectual/emotional roller coaster. She may have more confidence that she is perceiving what is “real” when the universe seems empty of the divine. But…still, there are moments when she wonders, even senses that there is something more that is out there. Like the believer “shakes it off” when there is a sense of God’s absence, she has to “shake off” the sense of the divine.

Our lives are microcosms of the same human experience that our alien visitors would discover: God is gone here, today, and back over there, tomorrow.

The lion, as C.S. Lewis would put it, may be very good, but he isn’t tame.

I would love to begin a series of posts on experiencing God by simply taking it as a given that the experience is out there to be had. But then, I wouldn’t be honest. Truth is that, like others, I experience God. And then I don’t. Sometimes, I even sense that I both know and don’t know at the exact same time. And any explanation of how we encounter the divine that doesn’t deal with this rather bizarre experience from the outset would not be satisfying to me.

If God exists, then he must love to play hide and seek. And why not? If human beings are indeed made in God’s image, I wouldn’t expect anything less from our Creator. After all, we are awfully good at this particular game – and not only when we are young.

As adults, we just change the rules a little.

Up next: The Johari window and divine hide and seek.

Sacred Dance – An Introduction

January 16, 2009

This will mark the first in what will probably be a fairly lengthy series of posts on the issue of how we come to understand (and appreciate how little we understand about) God. Many of the posts will draw from ideas that have already been explored in more limited ways in previous entries. In particular, I’m going to rely quite a bit on ideas from Scot McKnight, Phyllis Tickle, Peter Rollins, and (going back a little farther in time) N.T. Wright.

This will be a somewhat large undertaking, and it may be easy to get lost in the middle. So…to give you an idea of where things are going, here are the two basic moves that I have in mind:

First, I will argue that the evangelical approach to “understanding” God, which emphasizes scripture as authority, places expectations on scripture that it doesn’t satisfy, and which it does not claim to satisfy. At its worst, this approach can become idolatrous, substituting worship of Jesus himself for worship of scripture. In connection with this idea, I may also briefly discuss the benefits and potential pitfalls of widely accepted practices among Charismatic Christians, which emphasize knowledge through certain personal manifestations of the Spirit, but which – I will argue – may not be sufficiently attuned to the different ways that the Spirit manifests itself.

In the place of the evangelical model, I will propose a model in which we come to understand God by interacting BOTH with those who had “God” experiences and with those who have sought, and failed to find, such experiences. Such interactions include – prominently – discourse with the voices of scripture, but also include the voices of Christians throughout church history, the voices of modern scholars, the voices of our friends, and – of high importance – the voices of the oppressed. Such interactions, I will argue, should not be viewed as an academic exchange of information, but as something more akin to dance. In the same way that dance becomes an expression of music, our interactions become a medium through which we both experience the presence of, and mourn the absence of God. I will compare this interaction to systems and network theory, and ultimately argue that it is consistent with Paul’s understanding of spiritual gifts and the manifestation of the “body” of Christ in a community of believers.

In order to accept this approach, we must be willing to compromise the rational certainty that characterizes modern evangelical thought, but in exchange we will gain insights of aesthetic “certainty” that transcend rational thought.

These posts, of course, will be interspersed with the usual BSG prattle and other nonsense to which most of you are accustomed.

…And The Nominees Are…

January 15, 2009

Word is that the “Final Cylon” will be revealed on tomorrow night’s Battlestar Galactica. We’ll see.

In the meantime, because I sadly have nothing better to do at the moment, here are the most prominent nominees for the role of the last Cylon, together with the odds that I would put on each candidate:

1.5:1 – Ellen Tigh. Near the end of the last episode, Deanna, who can apparently identify the final Cylon, stated that the final Cylon was not in the fleet. Ellen, who mysteriously appeared in the fleet after being thought dead in season one, seems a likely candidate. I don’t particularly like this option, but it seems more likely than any other.

2:1 – Callie. Wife of another Tyrol, another recently self-aware Cylon. She was tossed out the airlock by Tori early in Season 4. She also fits the “not in the fleet” clue from the last episode.

2.5:1 Zach Adama. Long thought dead from a tragic training accident, Zach may suddenly – and shockingly – appear on the scene. This one also fits the “not in the fleet” clue, but there will be a lot of explaning to do about how Adama came to think of Zach as his son…

3:1 Felix Gaeta. The final skinjob reportedly will go through great suffering before becoming self-aware. Gaeta’s recent leg injury is either a huge red herring or a huge giveaway.

3:1 Kara “Starbuck” Thrace. Sometimes the obvious choice is also the best one. Starbuck, seemingly dead, has somewhat surprisingly returned. She is the target of lots of suspicion already, but her prominent role in leading the humans to Earth is consistent with the role that the last five Cylons are supposed to fill.

3:1 Gaius Baltar. Also an obvious choice from the beginning – he experiences visions of other Cylons and has generally played a prominent role in the demise of humanity. Still, I think he is a more prominent candidate for Cylon #13 (see below).

Now, for a couple of more exotic options, that are much more intriguing to me:

5:1 Caprica Six. Although she looks exactly like the “six” models, this particular person is, in fact, a completely different personality who is one of the Final Five. She has always seemed to be a little more “human” than the other models.

10:1 Starbuck’s Viper. Remember the viper that came back with Starbuck when she returned to the Galactica? Remember how it pointed the way to Earth? Remember how the Final Five are supposed to help find Earth? What if the consciousness of the last Cylon exists somehow in the Viper only later to take the form of…well, you take your pick of their “dead” prior model – Ellen, Zach, Callie, etc.

20:1 The Battlestar Galactica. The Galactica itself might be infused with the consciousness of the last Cylon. Remember…the other four final Cylons can occasionally hear the ship “singing.”

In any event, I don’t think we will have seen the “last” Cylon after tomorrow’s episode. Likely, there is a 13th Cylon just like there is a 13th Colony and a 13th Lord of Kobol who drove out the other Lords. As I stated above, my bet is that Baltar will be revealed as filling that role.

Anyone else want to offer guesses before 9:00 pm on Friday?


January 12, 2009

Via Tall Skinny Kiwi, this link to the Rapture Index.

Qoheleth, the Infinite Universe, and New Creation

January 11, 2009

I recently discovered a podcast called Radiolab, which is a series of hour long programs that focus on diverse scientific topics. In exploring some of the past offerings of Radiolab, I discovered this interview of Cambridge cosmologist Brian Greene regarding the implications of an infinite universe.

Here, Greene discusses the theory that nothing – and he does mean nothing – is unique in the universe.

Here is the concept:

1. The best data that is available today is that the universe is not “curved.” This means that, in theory, if you start traveling straight in one direction, and keep going that direction, you will keep going and going and going. You never end up – like you would on a globe – at the same place where you begin.

2. On the other hand, all conceivable patterns of matter are finite. He encourages us to think of Imelda Marcos. She may have many, many dresses and many, many shoes, but there are ultimately only so many combinations of the two that are possible.

3. Thus, while the universe itself is infinite, the potential arrangements of matter are finite. The number that describes all potential arrangements of matter is inconceivably large – but it must exist, and it must be finite, because matter only arranges itself in so many forms.

4. Thus, in an infinite universe, the finite patterns of matter must necessarily repeat themselves again and again and again.

Now…get ready for the weird part.

This means that, if you searched the universe long enough, you would eventually find an exact copy of yourself sitting in a room that is identical to where you are sitting right now, reading this exact blog post.. Except, maybe, the last sentence in the post didn’t include an extra period at the end.

But…if we kept searching, we could find yet ANOTHER person in an IDENTICAL place doing EXACTLY the same things reading EXACTLY the same post with the EXACT same typographical error.

Today, you might have exactly 100,000 hairs in your head. If we looked, we could find someone with the same number – or more, or less – who would otherwise be identical to you: right down to the color and style of your shirt.

You name it, you can find it. And you can find multiple copies of it.

…and why not, Greene argues? The universe has literally all of the space, matter, and energy it needs to randomly reproduce things – like you – again and again and again.

My sophomoric question – which I don’t think was answered in the podcast – is how we can know that the universe contains infinite quantities of matter and energy. It strikes me that this should not be a given, though I’m sure people much smarter than me have asked (and answered) the question already.

This cosmology leaves us with at least two potential configurations:

#1: One creator/One unique universe

#2: One Infinite universe

Option 2 does not eliminate the existence of God, but it does call into question the idea of a “Creator” God in the sense that “creation” brings about something that is unique or one-of-a-kind. Instead, if this cosmological view were to ever become widely accepted, theology would have to conceive of a God who brought about all possibilities at once and in infinite quantities.

Furthermore, Option 2 puts us in a serious existential crisis. I can no longer think of myself, my home, my loved ones, my planet, or my talents as unique. All of these things are, in fact, on a cosmological scale, quite common and thus – mundane.

I am reminded of the poem of Qoheleth – found in the first Chapter of Ecclesiastes:

Is there anything of which one can say,
       “Look! This is something new”?
       It was here already, long ago;
       it was here before our time.

If Greene is right – we can add: “It is also in the universe right now, in infinite quantities, and will exist in the same quantities in the future.”

Now…before we get carried away, lets be clear that this view is NOT, so far as I can tell, universally embraced amongst cosmologists. Even in this podcast, there is some discussion of a multi universe theory that is slightly different from this one, though it also holds the the existence of all possibilities.

Nevertheless, I think this viewpoint could inform the development of Christian theology in two important ways:

First, it provides a promising framework for a discussion on the issue of the existence of evil. If God did, in fact, allow for all possibilities to exist at once, as a part of the act of “creation” – then inevitably evil is going to spring up in that creation. Before creation can become what it was intended, all of the evil possibilities have to be identified and eradicated, in the same way that a novel must be edited or a script must be re-drafted. This explanation, I think, could help to move forward a discussion that has puzzled believers for centuries. [It could also serve as a great plot for a science fiction novel: imagine someone from a “perfect” – but largely identical part of the universe – coming into our own or vice versa…]

Second, it serves as an important reminder that our eschatology must deal with the basic existential crisis that was expressed by Qoheleth. If humans are, in fact, destined for immortality – how, then, can we avoid falling into Qoheleth’s despair? On the one hand, it could be argued that hell is nothing more than immortality in a universe with finite possibilities. On the other hand, it could be argued that God’s project of “new creation” is just that – to bring into existence, for example, infinite combinations of matter, or to introduce new combinations infinitely over time. This would free the universe from finite possibilities and open up something entirely new.