Thursday, December 07, 2006

In the presence of the absolute, the absolute casts no shadow

"Put not your faith in princes…"
It’s been said that as a species we are visual learners. See, then do. Learn through demonstration, then repetition.
Interesting, then, that the "people of the book" rely on the written word and not pictures, as their source of instructions. Is there a disconnect here, or a lesson to be learned..?

In the last few weeks I’ve had occasion to look over hundreds of photos of various protests for or against various causes. It was fascinating to see the range of imagery selected by the protestors to further their message, and I spent many a moment pondering the cause-and-effect involved, curious student that I am of human nature. What was the person thinking when they created that sign, what did they think the sign’s message was, what dialog is expected between the creator of the sign and a reader of the sign...

An unexpected lesson for me, was the discovery that those professing themselves as against idolatry tended to be the ones most reliant upon idols as representations of their message. These protestors would parade with photos of fellow human beings, offered as an absolute, direct expression of an idea: a photo of this politician looking as dumb as an ox or of that politician seeming as clever as a fox.

That’s certainly a simple solution to a complicated problem; so how to benefit from it? If I wanted to promote self-reliance, or inspire people to become more industrious, or some other value that I hold dear, what sign or placard could I carry that would influence passers-by more to my point of view? What kind of emblem could possibly announce, "self-discipline pays off"? How to convince more fellows to accept my cherished belief, that "one person can make a difference"? "Work hard and you’ll get ahead" is a hard sell as an abstract objective; some ideas need serious investments of one’s time in order for their value to be made plainly understood. How to simplify the communication?

Much faster, one may suppose, to hold high the life experience of some individual who can be understood to have lived the example whose worth we are at pains otherwise to explain. Much more efficient, it seems, to find a person whose life experience can act as an accelerant for others to understanding our idea… and carry their photo as a simple representation of a complex objective.
I can parade with a sign of, say, Walt Disney (whose 105th birthday would have been this past December 5th), and perhaps summarise my message that way.

"….nor put your faith in the son of man…."
The problem is: these images are meant to be the first step towards something else, a temporary substitute, a simple introduction, of a much more challenging idea… not the absolute idea itself.

Were I to parade with a sign of Walt Disney, in furtherance of my value system, I am not wanting all people to **be** Walt Disney, limited only to reliving his life and stepping only in his footsteps, avoiding paths that he avoided (or those that didn’t exist within his time on earth). I can learn from his demonstrated example, of how to live a life worth living, but it doesn’t mean I have to remake Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to do so. I don’t have to grow a mustache, as he had, in order to believe, as he did, that dreams can come true. And just because Walt was a man, doesn’t mean that only males possess access to the cause-and-effect relationship between hard work, belief in one’s ability to overcome adversity, and trust in the power of collaboration and teamwork, for dreams to come true, along with all the other lessons that his life’s example may provide.

Of course, if I hold up Walt Disney as my simplified introduction to a complicated subject, and no one gets to hear the thorough explanation that is meant to accompany this symbol, then more than likely the required secondary learning doesn’t get passed on, leading to the mistaken conclusion that there was no further meat on the bones in the first place. The picture of a man becomes the destination, not the departure zone.

"…for whom there is no help…"
How, then, does one represent unseen things, like values, or ideas? Maybe the answer is that the greater the idea, the more intangible it must remain.
Love can be described, but pictured? Such pictures are too easily defiled into something much less stellar than romantic attraction or familial devotion. Faith can be imagined, but pictured? You can show someone with their eyes closed, or hands clenched in focused concentration, but how to establish the true process that is underway when someone is imagining a positive outcome in order to help persevere through a contemporary crisis? How do we pictorially describe "imagination", "humility", "brotherhood", and any other concept worth knowing?

Our learning these values must begin somewhere, so why not with the principle that the world includes things which can be seen, representing things which cannot be seen. A book serves here as a good example of this principle: a book is not an idea, it represents that idea, containing it, demonstrating it… but indirectly, not absolutely. Words are not ideas, either, they are images standing in for an idea, helping us see the unseen idea.

A book has no immediate sense to it without our participation and interaction with it. This is a lesson in itself, on faith, which I view as the first necessary muscle to exercise in order for a human being to progress in their humanity, faith being the invoked belief in something better yet to come. A closed book offers the tantalising hope for adding to oneself, serving as a symbol for something not yet here, but possible to arrive in the future: additional enlightenment. Just by its very existence, a book helps us envision progress. Something seen, to help envision something unseen.

This relationship between the seen and the unseen, is at the heart of the Covenant we seek to renew for our nation of Canada.
A Covenant is a formless agreement. It casts no shadow. It may be represented by a physical thing, like a handshake or bejewelled ring, and may involve an understanding of physical things, such as the land we stand on, and the distribution of material goods we gather from that land. Yet it occupies no physical form beyond the scribbly lines that our schooling tells us all combine to shape the word "covenant" itself.
Love, faith, trust, imagination, duty, freedom, and every thing else most to be cherished as part of the human experience, all follow the same challenging example. Pictures may start off the lesson, words may be tentatively chosen to further our understanding of it, but not unto completion. Not to absolute representation. Never may it cast a shadow.

This understanding takes more than a prince who someday may come, more than a man who has already arrived, it takes a form of help we spend our lives struggling to learn.
Tonight Covenant Zone bloggers and readers struggle anew, 7:00 to 9:00 pm, in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library, and you are welcome to join us.

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