Friday, February 4, 2011

Book Sample . . . Chapter 3 "Stop Making Sense"

Here is another sample of a chapter from my book coming out in a couple of weeks.  I hope you enjoy it!  I cut it off when it starts getting good - to get the rest of it, go to Amazon and order it (only $9 rather than $15 right now).

Chapter Three: Stop Making Sense.
I made a discovery a few years back in the grocery store.  After I tell you about it, you will never look at the dairy aisle again.  Actually it was my brother Jim that showed me the difference.  If you look closely at packages of cheese in the grocery store, there is real cheese like Camembert, Gouda or Vermont’s White Sharp Cheddar.  This is the kind of stuff you serve with expensive crackers at parties.  It’s the kind of cheese that makes you cranky when someone else took the last slice.  This kind of cheese takes years to make and comes complete with enzymes and flavor (and the ability to get moldy pretty quickly).  It is the real thing, though, the best stuff. 
In the same dairy section of the supermarket, though, there is something called ‘pasteurized processed cheese food.’  If you look too quickly you will miss that it is not actually cheese, but cheese food.  Cheese food?  There is a difference between cheese and cheese food.  My thought is, if they need to tell you it is food, it isn’t worth eating.  Can you imagine: there is steak and then there is ground and mechanically separated beef food.  Sounds gross.  Essentially, certain cheese manufacturers got together and said, “cheese is expensive, cheese gets moldy too quickly and it is a pain to cut into slices.”  So they made this stuff that sort of tastes like cheese, fits in nice little plastic wraps, costs half as much and lasts about a hundred years in your refrigerator.  Real cheese is made out of milk and takes along time to bring to flavor.  Cheese food is plastic.
Actually, Pasteurized Processed Cheese Food is 47% water.  It is made of oil, water, gelatin, emulsifying agents and mold inhibitors like sorbic acid and sodium sorbate (yum!).  When I think of the good cheese, I think of people in Switzerland named Johann who live in the Swiss Alps and treat cheese like an art form.  Cheese food, on the contrary, reaches the store without ever touching human hands and can be made with a chemistry set.  Cheese Food is a lot friendlier to the consumer, but lets face it – they took the cheese out of it. 
I think of this kind of plasticity when I hear of people trying to force faith into making sense.   If we are not careful, we can rob Christianity of its distinctive flavor.  To make it more friendly to the consumer, we have robbed it of its difficulties. “Look!  100% faith that is easy to figure out, and for convenience – and it fits entirely in your brain!”  No, faith is difficult; it is hard to believe and requires risk and effort to take hold of.  Faith is wild and demands a lot from us as rational beings.  It requires us to humble ourselves and accept that we are not as smart as we think.  Faith takes us on a crazy journey.  Making sense of things tries to bend the absurdities of faith to logic and make the way smooth.  It is easy to believe in a faith that has been explained, but how likely are you to believe a faith that violates everything you think you know about truth and reason?  The real question isn’t whether Christianity is a reasonable faith, but whether we are willing to believe it when it is not?  Is your faith strong enough to stop making sense?
This is not to say that faith doesn’t have a logic to it, it does, but it is very different than the logic we are used to.  At this point, however, it is important to notice how moldable and, in some ways subjective, reason can be.  In the same way that we can look at the irrational nature of faith as we have in the last chapter, we need to look now at how limited logic really is. 
We tend to hold onto this idea that logic is something handed to us from on high, that logic and rationality are the unassailable means by which we evaluate what is true and what is not true in the universe.  For a variety of reasons, we forget that reason is something that we construct within our minds.  In order to move through the world we inhabit, we have to observe patterns, see similarities and make forecasts about the way things behave.   When we use the word “make” in the phrase “making sense of things” we forget that making is in fact the key verb – we manufacture reason, it is not revealed to us.  The American philosopher William James talked about this kind of mental bending that takes place when we try to make sense of things.  James was a Pragmatist, a form of philosophy that is American-made and beats the French to the postmodern idea by almost half a century.    
James argued that truth is something humans make from their experiences.[i]  As an example, if it is January, it makes sense that it is cold outside.  It is a truth that January and cold weather go together.  “January is cold” is a true statement.  This makes sense to us especially if we live in New York City.  Of course it would make no sense to go outside in your bathing suit (although I am sure it has happened more than a few times in New York City).  If someone went outside in a bathing suit in the middle of January, we would say they are crazy because bathing suits in January doesn’t fit our way of thinking.  January and cold go together, therefore a twenty-five degree day on January 1st in New York City would make sense. It fits the sense data we have that is stored in our memories.
For James, however, cold and January are truths that we have manufactured.  Just think of it, the idea of cold really does not exist outside the human experience.  Cold is just a word we have given to atoms that travel at a slow speed.  For some reason, our skin has nerve endings that warn us when these atoms move too slowly to prevent skin damage.  The result is the human experience arbitrarily called ‘cold.’  The same is true of atoms being too fast, heat can cause burns on your skin.  For our example, however, it is enough to understand that the idea of cold is a human-centered phenomenon that has no bearing on the world outside of our own minds.  Essentially, we make truth because of what impact certain events have on our lives. 
For example, the idea that “January is cold” doesn’t hold any weight in a place like, say, Sydney Australia.  For an Australian, it would make no sense for January to be cold.  Wearing a coat would be ridiculous in Sydney because the way we understand the world is related to perspective.  It is completely ‘normal’ for a person to wear a bathing suit in January and cook something on the grill after a swim.  Since the northern and the southern hemispheres alternate having the sun in their half of the world, a completely different perspective is evidenced.  January in Sydney is like New York in June.  So when something makes sense it is because it fits into a certain way that we look at the world, not necessarily because that is the way that the world truly is.  The way we look at the world is, in turn, informed from the point at which we are looking at it.  Truth, for James, came from perspective.
It is actually an intriguing thing to realize that reason is not something ‘out there’ that strikes us, but rather it is something that we build from within our minds.   James would argue that we forge truths from the circumstances we encounter in our lives – not the other way around.  In short, reason is not something that we encounter (like it is out there in the world awaiting discovery), but rather something we invent.  It is intriguing because it opens up a new way of looking at the world – does coldness and January go together and I just take notice of it or do I make the connection between coldness and January and create something that new that I call logic?  This is a pretty deep thought – what is the basis of something I call true?  Is it true because of some external idea of what is true?  Are things true because they are reasonable to begin with or is it more likely because my mind ‘makes sense’ between things in order to manipulate my world better?  If sense is not something we find in the world, but something our nerve endings deliver to our minds, than logical truth is not something ‘out there’ but rather inside our minds.  Logic is not grasped, but manufactured.

[i] Pragmatism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. Originally published in 1907 [P]. p.104 


  1. John,

    You picked a subjective term - cold - and proceeded to use it to say logic is manufactured. This is the kind of thinking that leads to subjectivism. Saying 'January is cold' has very little in common with 'Jesus is Lord' or 'The righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who believe.' Logic flows from the character of God. It is not anti-God - herefore, one should not run from logic any more than believers 50 years ago should avoid 'TV' or dancing or whatever ... I think your logic leads us to a very unstable place when followed to its conclusion ...

  2. Dear Anon - concerning subjective terms - Nicely done. You are correct for as much as you have read. I encourage you to read the rest of the chapter - then you will see the bigger point. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I thank God for my faith...and REAL cheese. And I thank God for guys like John, a former student of mine,who grow into men of faith.
    Being a Christian is not easy; if it were, everybody would be one.
    All the best with your book.

    Tony Rotondo

  4. You are completely is very hard for me to accept, but reality as we know it is changing. I guess whe are shifting into the 4th dimension. Facts that always where true, have simply changed. Quite bizarre and very hard to grasp.