I have spent most of my day in that world which is at once familiar and strange and weird and inexplicable, that world which, for one to inhabit it he must be both indolent and restless, hopeful and melancholy, rational and befuddled – in short, an absurd mass of contradictions; that world which, if you have never been there, no amount of elaborating will suffice to describe it for you. I have been in a world, that is to say, of random musings, and being particularly susceptible, therein, to sudden impressions, I have decided to record a few of my wandering thoughts. This is an unwonted reaction, and I am faced immediately with the overwhelming concern that these ramblings will be no more interesting to the reader than they are satisfying to me, and that both of us, therefore, will walk away from the experience singularly unfulfilled. But on further thought, that plight is not at all unusual, and I suppose my contribution can only be indicative, not causative; which consideration greatly alleviates my sensations of guilt.
Much of my life has been spent in pursuit of connectedness, even from childhood. Other children seemed quite content to observe that dandelions were yellow and that falling on the sidewalk and skinning one’s knee was painful and that it was forbidden and immoral to steal the eraser from the desk of one’s schoolmate, and so on, without pausing to consider whether there were some unifying fabric behind all of these observations. I was often plagued with what relationship the yellowness of dandelions had to the forbiddenness of stealing. If these were all random truths, what criterion was left by which to apprehend further truths? In other words, unless we could formulate some system of rules for the interrelationship of one level of reality to another, so that all was a harmonic whole, there could be no further understanding of things that are, nor yet any meaning to the understanding we already had. Although I never formulated them quite so precisely, these were the distressing thoughts that plagued my early childhood.
My parents had a World Book Encyclopedia that I spent many delightful hours reading. I enjoyed the specific content of many of the various articles, but more thrilling to me than that was the very concept of some systematized, unified body of human knowledge. I became disillusioned, however, by observing the randomness of the systematization, the selectiveness of the fields of knowledge which were referred to, and the fundamental contradictions in what was posited as truth, variable to the angles at which the reality in question was held for observation.
I eventually grew accustomed to think of reality as a vast field of dots, connected by lines which might be capable of being traversed either one way or both, variable to each specific instance. These dots I used to represent non-composite, fundamental realities, and the lines I supposed to be representative of causality, dependence, reciprocity, and so on. My attempts to interrelate differing realities consisted largely of positioning myself mentally on one “dot” and attempting to trace the lines, giving thought to how each line in question was traversable, and deciding what essential reality must be the next after I had traversed a particular line in a particular direction. In this way, I hoped to connect all the dots of reality so that I could logically proceed from yellowness to stealing to pain, and so on, by way of causality and dependence, accurately labeling each dot along the path.
At various points in my life, my fetish for exhaustive systematizing has led me to several inchoate designs, none of which advanced beyond the stage of preliminary preparations, nor indeed is likely to in the future. One of these was to attempt a systematic theology of general revelation. That is, to examine in detail the created world, beginning with a basic observation of the surrounding universe, viewing it at first macro-cosmically, and then micro-cosmically, before relegating the micro-cosmoi to their places in the macro-cosmos. From there I planned to consider the metaphysical realities of moral agents who inhabit this intricate cosmos, the whole time drawing necessary conclusions about the Creator and Designer of such a manifold reality. At the end, I merely hoped to demonstrate that an unbiased examination of general revelation must necessarily lead one to the door of special revelation – that is, to leave one with the confidence that God has indeed spoken to man; that in this speaking, he could expect to find a revelation both of justice and mercy; that this revelation holds forth the only true answer to the overwhelming need that daily confronts him, and that the indefinite continuance of the state of things as they are could only be a forbearance intending to lead one to seek this indispensable revelation.
Another design that I entertained for awhile was to examine the essential likeness and dissimilarity between the divine Logos and the human logos, the former differing from the latter primarily by virtue of its constitutive element which the other lacks altogether. With God, to speak is to constitute. The human logos apprehends or posits reality; the divine Logos creates reality. When God speaks, he accomplishes, through Christ, that which he has spoken. For this reason, Christ is called the Logos: he is the one who reveals and accomplishes the will of God. When God said, “Let there be light,” light sprang into existence through Christ. And when God said, “I will have mercy,” mercy came into being through the grand accomplishment of Christ. Human speech, on the other hand, can only reveal one’s will; it can create worlds – but only worlds in which is lacking constitutive reality. From this framework, I had hoped to reduce reality to a three-tiered system, the primary level being the essential nature of God himself, who alone is a self-existent and self-perpetuating reality; the secondary level being that brought into existence by the divine Logos; and the tertiary being that brought into existence by the human logos. Secondarily, I hoped to establish the plausibility of real volition and moral agency within a tertiary level of reality which could exist at the same time as a closed system functioning as a single element of a secondary level of reality ordained, created, directed, and sustained by the divine Logos. In which arrangement a moral agent might make a choice which had real negative morality for which he was justly culpable; however, the immorality of the action must extend merely to the tertiary level of man’s creation, and the event itself could co-exist within the secondary level of God’s creation as a good and right reality. However, lacking time, energy, and confidence in the value of such flighty endeavors, I forbore to give to them any real effort.
On a different note, I have spent some time imagining to myself a world in which, every time the duck flew by, everyone raised his left heel, and, with his right hand, struck three times in rapid succession. If I grew up in that world, and one day, the duck flew by and I just stood there, would everyone think me frightfully stupid or even insane? I feel as though there are many things I do that make no more sense than striking my heel when the duck flies by, and yet, if I forbear, people look at me askance. Does the whyness of everything strike me alone as ultimately important? Surely not – and yet most people seem quite content to do things because things are done in that way, to think the thoughts that all their life it has been told them they must think. Let them give me one real reason that it is more beneficial or consistent or right to think that way, and I will be content. If you even ask them for such a reason, they look at you as though you had just requested a monkey who drinks flagons of mead in a vacuum full of pensive chimeras.
Of all the philosophical works I have read, I think I enjoyed Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason the most. And yet, when I finished it, I felt as though I had walked through the most captivating palace ever built; but when I stepped outside I plummeted through empty air, and, on my way down, looked up to see the entire massive structure being held up by a poor little sparrow, frantically beating its wings. Epistemologically, the work was unsatisfying. It assumed too much for which I saw no justification, like the goblin spinning silk from a pile of straw.
Beauty has always been a mysteriously captivating thing for me. The point at which this wonder became most salient for me was in the observation of a beautiful woman’s face. Throughout my childhood I was intrigued by the fact that a woman was so distinguishable from a man even by virtue of her face alone. There are certain obvious differences by which to distinguish at a glance a woman’s body from a man’s; but what mystified me was that a face was quite as easily distinguishable, and yet with no salient determining features. Women and men share all the same basic facial anatomy. In both sets there are examples of fat faces, thin faces, large noses, small noses, big ears, small ears, pointed ears, long eyelashes, short eyelashes, and so on. Why would virtually any instance of a compilation of all of these similar features present itself so naturally and instinctively and obviously as masculine or feminine? Moreover, why did some feminine faces immediately strike me as beautiful, and others as very plain? I could never distinguish any common characteristic in those faces that I thought beautiful, nor yet any common characteristic in those I thought ugly. Although, when I gave enough thought to the latter, I discovered that even those faces which I had thought ugly had their own beauty, albeit in a less intrusive manner.
From my first reading of some of the English poets, I fell quite in love with the beauty of poetry, although I could never understand why. I spent countless hours lost in the exhilarating rhythms and flawless cadences of Shelley and Tennyson, and drank in deeply the sensuous richness of Keats; but in the end, I could never quite express why I found rhythmic speech so captivating, and this lack of rational basis disturbed me much.
This same mystifying beauty is the sole substance of music. How many countless hours I spent fabricating reasons for the pleasant effects of certain sequences of pitch and rhythmic patterns – and yet, finally, I was able to give no satisfactory explanation. I think that there is almost no empirical sensation more moving to me than that of the well-ordered beat of a drum set. Pitch is almost inconsequential; the appeal is exclusively that of rhythm. Drums always struck me as the very beat of life: movement and progression all structured and ordered and thrilling and vibrant. However, I never indulged my secret love of drums very frequently. And when I did there was usually attached some feeling of guilt.
The reason for this is that I grew up with the impression that drums were not suitable for worship. I think I retained some ethical misunderstandings from Kant. I felt as though worship were some sacrifice of duty, and that if it were not a sacrifice, or if it involved pleasure other than the pleasure of ascetic renunciations (for that, too, is a sort of pleasure) then it would be unacceptable. But apart from worship, well-played drums were thoroughly unsatisfying and farcical. When I listened to “secular” music with a stirring drum beat, I felt as though I were watching a massive rocket about to launch from Cape Canaveral: the gigantic engines roar, huge flames leap out from beneath, the titan structure slowly begins to lift off the ground – such a display of strength and beauty can have nothing other than the moon and the outer limits of space as its destination. And then the rocket settles back down a few blocks away, and the astronaut jumps out and runs into the convenience store for a pack of cigarettes. The destination is vastly unworthy of the means employed to get there. To have the thrill of the drums lift my soul and fill my senses with a staggering awe and exhilaration, only to drop me off at the thoroughly bland scenario of some wretch moaning at the loss of his girlfriend, or some other such mundane thing was worse than pointless. Even romantic love, perhaps the most mystifying of natural human pleasure, is a far cry from the majesty that music, by its essential thrilling nature, promises to exult in. Music is too lofty to exult in anything trivial.
My ramblings must finally converge on one topic: Jesus alone. All of my life spent in searching for meaning, rationality, significance, truth, harmony – all of it must end in vanity and delusion if the very thing the world was created to magnify is hidden from sight. All things interrelate simply because all things have their final reference point in Christ. It is altogether fitting that the beauty of one face should be feminine and that of another masculine because the harmony of the two uniting in a mutually complementary joy is expressive of Christ and the church. It is altogether fitting that rhythm should be exhilarating because its end is to express and convey the wonder of seeing the glory of Christ, when mere words fall short. And so on. I understand the essence of things no more clearly than I did when I was young. But I have now glimpsed the goal of all things beautiful and mysterious in the sight of my precious Savior, and I can therefore embrace the mystery of inexplicable things which exist to shout his glory.
I used to be a poet. For no other reason than that this poem from that previous era of my life happened just now to enter my mind, I will use it to conclude. It also displays my aptitude for incoherent rambling.
An Insignificant Crisis in the Life of J. Dwight Nelson