Wednesday, July 16, 2014


My second thought-petal when I was musing on what I value as "good for you" was acknowledging error.

Good for you is, by the way, the name of a bulk food store nearby, about 7 km away. We often go there for bread flour, oats, wheat germ, and other bulk foods.

So how can one classify error? (And I note to my relief that I included the verb acknowledging.)

First, of error, there is accident, mistake, things arising from ignorance, from complexity, from various kinds of action, things having unexpected consequences, things that happen where the mechanics are broken, such as in the case of disease or other damage to a human being.  It's not an easy list!  Some of these errors are easy to correct, and some cannot be fixed. And they are not necessarily anyone's fault.

And then there's 'sin'. What is it that we call 'sin'? It is always communal, always against another. While it may be committed by the individual, there is no escaping from its origin or its impact even if one considers oneself without it. And by definition, no one is without sin. You may have a necessary belief that someone is without sin, but if anyone is short of it, he can have some of mine. So in a sense, I refuse to go to the answer before I have the questions. I will undermine a theoretical faith because theory may prevent us from actually behaving in a manner suitable to our calling in faithfulness.

It was Northrope Frye who taught me through his book The Great Code, about the problem of having answers to questions. Answers consolidate the learning at the level of the question, and prevent the development of further questions. This (one among many other causes) produces stunted growth. The doctrine of 'original sin' is an example of theory that prevents growth. We can take no consolation from such doctrine if we do not find the reality of obedience. That is the real question. And it is not quite the subject of this second thought-petal.

So, secondly, how easy is it to acknowledge error? I think you know that it doesn't even matter which kind of error we are talking about. It is hard. Honour and shame can prevent us from even considering a typo. You didn't sin. You just had a fingering problem on the keyboard, but you didn't notice until it was published!

I found one in a delightful book the other day. The book is Aleph through the Looking Glass, Yale 2006, by Jonathan Orr-Stav. It is by far the best introduction to Hebrew letters I have come across. Late in the book, an inconsequential image omits the letter resh. Resh, he describes, is a fundamental stroke in the Hebrew script. The omission of resh in the image (twice) is curious but unimportant in the overall scheme of things. It may have happened for a variety of systemic reasons, many of them outside the author's control. In a book this many years following initial production, it may even be a recurrence of an error that had been fixed already.

Books like systems are a complex process. Many people must cooperate to produce such things. And in many senses they are never finished. This should put a limit to the perfection we seek and allow us to stand away from the products we build. To stand too close is to expose our need for perfection in a way that reveals deeper troubles.

There will always be misprints. Some of them we correct as we read and we never even notice. Such self-correcting processes are an essential component to life and our ability to operate in any fashion. Life would be boring without them. (What! O happy fault!)

If acknowledging a simple error is difficult, how much harder is it to face a situation where we damage others either by accident or by design, or as a byproduct of our own pursuit of self-interest? This fear of shame, correction, or inability to change is the cause of endless governance problems in our world. In fact, the line between systemic error and sin is not at all clear. Murder happens sometimes as a result of mental illness and this in turn is caused by systemic problems in either or both gestation or social structures.

So my second thought-petal reveals a serious set of concerns. Whether it be power to build, or desire to protect, or all the myriad of conflicts that emerge from our lives, how will we deal with the power and the desire within us when we ourselves have been produced by that prior generation that we are so happy to blame? First we must acknowledge that there is a fault-line.

Perfection in the limited sense of "working towards completeness" and with a byproduct of purity and holiness is our next thought-petal.