Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Banning Goldfish Bowls

Not long ago the city of Monza, Italy, banned the use of traditional goldfish bowls because their curved sides obscured a fish’s take on reality.

Makes me wonder, what next? Churches, with their stained glass windows? Theaters, with their only “window” being a stage? Possibly observatories and laboratories, with their high-powered lenses? All of these could be said to offer a distorted view of reality!

In their recent book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow use this curious anecdote as a beginning point to contemplate whether any of us have an accurate view of reality. We all may be looking through a curved lens, so to speak.

But, they add, a goldfish could still accurately predict movements outside their sphere, and that’s part of the scientific quest. They later explain that our brains are continually modeling the outside world, despite a hole (and therefore blind spot) where the optic nerve is attached in the middle of each retina, which emit pixelated messages that our brain constructs into a three-dimensional whole.

The field of vision is one place where the academic quest of deconstruction would not be helpful to understand the whole! Notice the breadth of possibility in this metaphor.

Last night I watched again The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s novel. My interest in its philosophical take on the world has been piqued by American legislators and business leaders who share Ayn Rand’s views on the individual, the absurdity of self-sacrifice, the absoluteness of the self.

I “get” the need to do one’s work, no matter the consequences. I’ve tried to do that my whole life. That’s what keeps me focused on my writing. But I extend that first sentence by adding, “no matter the consequences to me.” I am constantly aware of the consequences for others, because a writer usually has readers in mind.  I care about readers, what words may inspire, challenge, and provoke. And, as a minister, I am keen on helping rather than hindering others on their spiritual paths, trying to discern what’s true, good, and beautiful. I’ve been blessed by readers, editors, copyeditors, and publishers who help me in that process.

The Fountainhead depicts an architect who does not want his work compromised. Admirable, in a way. But then, who is he building for? Will his structure take into account the humans who will inhabit it? And how does he know that without consultation, both with them and with other architects? Collaboration is key.

But then, that’s the “collectivism” the character deplores.

Last night I also watched the final episode of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s accomplished depiction of cable news. In this last season, the news network has been acquired by a young high tech mogul intent on increasing its revenue, viewership, and appeal to younger viewers. He does so by making every viewer a contributing “journalist” regardless of qualifications and without checks and balances for truth, privacy, and sensationalism, wreaking havoc.

This is the kind of collectivism I deplore.

During a “Big Chill” kind of weekend with former classmates, I learned that several were surprised I didn’t go into filmmaking. We had grown up together in L.A.; they knew I liked to take photos, make movies, and write. One told me he even watched movie credits looking for my name. I explained that, had my calling not been elsewhere, I would not have liked writing for Hollywood because everyone “in the industry” thinks they’re writers, and what’s on screen often bears little resemblance to the original.

As I reflect on my education, I wish I had been given more experience working in teams. What has helped make up that deficit is my vocation in the church and more broadly, the spiritual community. Spirituality is inherently collective, even for spiritual hermits, for all of us pray and write and care as one.  And we have the spiritual resources over the ages of the many who have gone before us.  That’s a core truth of spirituality: we are not alone, we are bound to one another. The apostle Paul thus depicted the Christian spiritual community as the Body of Christ.

That’s why I’m puzzled that some current aficionados of Ayn Rand claim a Christian identity. Rand was consistent in her individualism: being an atheist, she was not bound to a concept of spiritual relationship or community.

The more I read and the more I watch documentaries on the scientific quest, it’s clear we’ve gotten where we are because of collectivism in science as well. The recent PBS/BBC series, How We Got to Now, demonstrates this well.

To paraphrase Saint Paul, “For now we see through a goldfish bowl dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now we know only in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.”

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  1. Thanks, Chris. At the church i attend--many are coming out of other churches because they did not believe or trust that they supported much of the "journey aspect". We say we know the collective of the spiritual but there were times in some of our lives that we FELT IT. There seems to be a desire to FEEL it no matter how much we all say we are on that journey but it is kind of obvious we are all at different places. I suggested we try doing away with trying to say things and perhaps act out where we are on our journey. Hmmmmm.

  2. Hi Chris,
    Although I've always thought that Ayn Rand was misguided, there was often wisdom in her words if viewed through a slightly different lens. Thank you for your words. I always knew you would be a writer. I never envisioned that you would be such a successful one. Silly me. But, I do know that you are exactly what God wants you to be and doing exactly what He has planned for you. Merry Christmas.

    1. Thanks, Kelsey, for all you've written here. I'm glad and grateful we've reconnected during recent years on Facebook. And you've always kept in touch through your Christmas letters. You're right about Ayn Rand's words having wisdom in certain contexts. I didn't touch on the architect's refusal to cowtow to business interests and corporate concerns as well, which can be a good thing. Great to have your balancing comment! Thanks again!