Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 31, 2010

Models of Understanding

At it’s most basic… it still gets down to the inevitable question even Cousin Dan… the questioner himself… no longer remembers:

“What would happen if you threw a match at a dinosaur?”

You know there’s only one answer… and of course you don’t know what it is… but you’re supposed to be nice to the guy, or get him to go to bed or something… so you play along.

“I don’t know… what would happen?”
“Nah… you can’t do that… you have to guess.”
“Okay… he’d blow it out?”
“Nope. Keep guessing.”

Somethings clearly last longer than you think they will. Sometimes you don’t even have a Snickers Bar when you need one. And of course this particular set of interrogatives lasted a long time. Fact is… that it lasted so long, and it grew to such legend and song in our own family many years later that a decade plus later when we reminded dear Dan of the interlude… we were amazed it had failed to grip him the way it had gripped us. Obviously, he moved on to become the rocket scientist he is… designing engines and nose cones these days…. literally… but of course we remained mesmerized.

What indeed is the meaning of the match to the dinosaur? Are there enough colons to stick in the doctoral theses of paleontologists pondering issues of this character? And yes we know it’s all true about the eggs in Mongolia and the bigger-than-a-T-Rex in Latin America… but who wants to find out about the essential match-dinosaur dichotomy?

Theological arguments can seem much the same: they proceed from a proposition, there is a lot of angst and extrapolation, and whether or not anyone ever solves the dilemma to the satisfaction of one and all… everyone moves on. No big deal.

“Deal or no deal?”
“No deal.”

Are you kidding me? So the shadow of passion over the filioque remains… but frankly, no one remembers what or why it mattered. Yes… there is the whole bit about changing unilaterally, about changing at all… and all that… but somehow, I’m just not sure this is how it all began. And as the filioque isn’t what I’m writing about… I simply want to point to it as a symbol of those things that say so much more than what they begin as, that they assume a life of their own that lives beyond them… and then they die and ordinary death, but the legend survives and the passion,  the dissonance, and so often the hurts remain.

So what is it about those who can’t or won’t seem to move beyond their failed models of the reality, God, and all that? Should we be surprised or angered that their dissatisfaction, their frustration survives beyond the limits of their comprehension? I don’t think so. Should we blame them for their disbelief and desultory dyspepsia? Probably not. There are speed bumps along any path, and sometimes we fall on them and we pause before we get up to check where we are and how we’re doing… even to wonder whether we’re okay. Maybe if we focus too much on a transitory state…. we are similar to the visiting relatives who freeze a child in his twos or threes and ponder his quizzical inscrutability far beyond his own curiosity… and then we puzzle at our own oddity in this and how we have dated ourselves in applying cryogenics to another’s thoughts, feelings, and sense of being. Are we really that out of touch? How can it be so obvious in these encounters among people, and yet so obtuse when the same seems to occur in the wonders of so-called adult discourse?

I’ve been something of a model builder in my time. I do this in my hobbies, my professional life, and in my understanding of the universe.  Nothing special in this, but perhaps it makes me more conscious of the process then others… and in truth, I’m not sure “awareness” is all it’s cracked up to be. Yet I do agree it’s something we all do whether we’re aware of it or not in our daily routines, our daily steps, our walk to the elevator: we assume a set of models, we  accept a set of hypothesis, we may even test a few samples… even in our prayers. And yes, many of us do this unconsciously… without much thinkin… simply live as if these matters are as natural as the grass beneath our feet. We walk into the building without much thought about whether it will stand during our visit, we step into the elevator without much thought about the tensile strength of the cables, and we cross the bridge, we eat the prepared food, and reply to the email…. all without a worry or care. We have faith at a practical level in things far beyond our understanding… yet within our grasp. And yet the seriousness of these things is such that a simple missed calculation can bring it all to an end in an instant.

What then of the God for whom our daily miscalculations seem to be without consequence? Nah. Not to worry. What about his role in sustaining life and the universe? Do I care more than the elevator cables? Why do these become so much more conditional? Is it anything more than the fact that we perceive these as optional to our world view while the others are not? And if this is so… what in fact makes the considerations about God optional or conditional… while those assumptions about the physical everyday universe we inhabit are not? Is it that the same experts on whom we rely for one seem unable to answer regarding the other? or is there something else at work?

Frankly, I don’t know. And oddly… I’m not sure it’s our concern. Given time… and that may a key variable… reasonable people will begin to move in the direction of understanding that their demands for required certainty on models for understanding the universe, God, and all that are simply far beyond what they ask of everyday matters on which their life depends, and they will come to see their own unreasonableness in this…. let go, relax… or whatever it is we do… and allow the energy of grace to work through them, and to work their way toward real faith… a workmanlike faith… something even a carpenter or couple of fishermen could grasp.

And yet in today’s world with all it’s pretense to modern sophistication and self-awareness… this simplicity just ain’t easy, and our focus shifts to where we think our attention is needed. Maybe in this course of things, we find sometimes that the models we use to understand ourselves are simply not working as well as the models we use for more practical things in the execution of our responsibilities. Granted that I’m not sure that the sense of option, the sense of impracticality, and the sense in which sophisticated minds are left out of the process of understanding God is not all that bad… it may even free us to retain a more practical faith. Let them step aside until more worthy minds come to pass. I’m okay with that. But my point is simply that just because some find themselves unwilling or unable to work through the process of understanding is no excuse to allow their frustrations to distract us from our own more mundane and concrete process.

Again… my experience is that the over-awareness of looking for things, of even searching for a workable model often obscures more than it illuminates… because we think our energies alone are sufficient. And like that game where tensing up and over-stressing once you fall behind in fact forces more mistakes, we simply can’t see through the haze within the mind one might even call a passion of sorts… or even admit to being worked up to the point where our processes are not functioning as they might. And so many simply throw out the effort, the process and whole endeavor as unworkable. And yet surely there is discomfort in this – even if it is resisted and not admitted.

And if we allow ourselves, we can simply re-open the toolkit, get busy, and rebuild the model by reaching for another tool, seeking some other hands… and even allowing passage of time for rumination, distraction, and the work of others to proceed or be rediscovered… that it might become a part of our own. And we might further allow for the work of synergies we don’t understand. And then, maybe we add a few new things we’ve learned… or things that are at least new to us… and maybe progress even imperceptibly begins to form, and before we know it and whole new mod begins to take shape… and we  don’t give it up… we just keep at it, and our energies are refreshed that at least for a while, it will make sense again.

Model builders burrow down like good groundhogs and dig deeper, and they figure a way through, around, over or under and finally reach wherever they’re headed. Sometimes, it might even mean we give in on those issues the Dan’s of our world bring up from time to time… like what happens when you throw a match at a dinosaur… and you have to factor in from what seems like left field that someone else just “knows” that “his skin burns off.”

Maybe it’s really this simple, and we’re like kids frustrated with the obtuseness of the adults we’ve become… maybe even to the point of manufacturing our own puzzles that only we can solve. And maybe there is something to the model of understanding how our encounters between the generations critically reset the sense that our wonder can never be complete. So I suspect whenever we get there…. if we get there… we may be surprised to find the company of even all we thought heretics just getting along fast and furious in heaven.  We simply froze them in a time through which they transitioned as if a page ever captured the whole of their thought or intention. Our minds can be much more limited than we think, and our pages only more so. So if Metropolitan Anthony makes this point – and he does – then it seems our duty to keep at it, to keep at ourselves as well, and perhaps we will find ourselves graced to by models that help us both here and beyond…  our Faith may be sustained, and the Lord in His Goodness may have mercy on us when we content ourselves something less.


  1. My nose is barely above the water here… I think. But yes, I wonder sometimes how much we try to convince ourselves that we have “faith” but really all we have is another slightly more elegant model with some parts that we’re tinkering with to try to get the outcome we’re hoping for. It seems to me that real faith is living modellessly, or expectationlessly since one is a control issue and the other is living in the future (and past simultaneously and prognosticating) and not in the present moment. Am I close?

  2. Gee… that bad, huh?

    I’m dealing with Metropolitan Anthony’s “God and Man” again. He’s all about how the Atheist just abandons the project altogether when he can’t find a solution, while the more rational person of faith tinkers with the model… whenever there’s a challenge. I tried not to get too biographical on my own course through traditions to the Orthodox Church. I don’t think it was particularly much, nor do I think folks should have to study so much stuff to get here. It shouldn’t have to be a Sisyphusian boulder either but lead to gradual, consistent progress. Setbacks are okay… but should lead to resetting the feet for the next step up the hill.

    So many of us have actually managed the hill somehow that we forget what it was really like to be stuck, tossed under the bus. And so one Orthodox seems to lord it over another. Gee… how’s that working for us?

    You can say that perhaps if a model never really is complete because knowledge expands… that maybe we don’t have a model and don’t expect others to conform their minds to it… or you could simply accept it as the scientist does… as incomplete or imperfect as it approaches the fullness of reality…but still very workable. And it is the focus on the workable that we get right in our everyday life (most of the time) as it approaches sufficiency to deal with things we don’t understand but find useful… only somehow when it comes to religion we switch to a whole, new impractical standard. And as a result, many persons simply abandon faith… rather sadly.

    There is as much impatience with God as there is with each other. 😦

    Thanks for visiting!

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