29 December 2010

Stained Glass, Plate Glass, and the "Cathedral of the World"

Several months ago, my partner was teaching the "New Unitarian Universalist" adult religious education class and she shared a story in this curriculum by Forrest Church. The story is titled "Cathedral of the World."

This story uses the differing variety of colors, windows, and refraction in stained glass as a metaphor for the mystery one finds in religious exploration.

However, this story brought to mind another analogy that first read in Isaac Asimov's writings where he uses stained glass and plate glass as metaphors to talk about complex poetic writing and simple direct writing. I will write more about this metaphor later on.

A few days ago on the UU Theology email list, a list member made the following comment when discussing truth, knowledge, and religious meaning:
"You are making a distinction that I did not consider-regarding demonstrating that a concept is true removes its meaning. I think that is mainly true. We no longer get a lot of meaning out of medical cures-like we did when we thought spirits and shamans were responsible for that. Getting inoculations is no longer very meaningful. They remain meaningful in the pragmatic aspect of accomplishment-and predictability-but lose meaning in the more meaningful sense of personal meanings."
Again, this comment also brought to mind Asimov's stained glass and plate glass analogy. Asimov borrowed this analogy from Jay Kay and expanded on it to describe how he perceived his writing style.

In his memoir, he mentioned that there is writing that resembles a stained glass mosaic. A stained glass window is beautiful in itself and it lets light in through the many colored fragments. But one cannot see too clearly through them. To continue with this analogy, there is poetic writing that beautiful in itself and has great emotional impact. But this sort of writing can make comprehension more difficult.

Plate glass has no beauty of its own. Ideally, one should not even notice that it's there at all. It allows you to see what is happening in the world around you. Asimov suggests that his plain-and-direct, non-poetic writing style is analogous to plate glass. Ideas flow from the writer to the reader with few to no barriers to reader comprehension.

Colored glass mosaics have been known sense ancient times. Creating clear plate glass that doesn't distort one's view of the world is much harder. Even though it's less beautiful and less "poetic," it's much harder to make.

To take Asimov's stained glass and plate glass analogy further and apply it to the email comments quoted above, perhaps the shaman and spirit view of illness is a "stained glass" way of looking at the world. There may be more emotional meaning and poetry in this way of looking at the world. And the way of looking at the world that gives us immunizations, germ theory of disease, etc is a "plate glass" way of looking at the world. What we've lost in poetry and "meaning" we've made up in lives saved and suffering averted. Fair trade perhaps?

I want to take this analogy a bit further. Let's use the analogy of a moving car zipping down a high-speed freeway with lots of other traffic on it as a metaphor for the complex world we live in. We're cruising down the road at 70 miles per hour (approximately 115 km per hour for our European readers).

In this analogy, would we want the poetic and beautiful stained glass mosaic for our windshield? Or would we want a windshield that gives us the best possible view of world as we are hurtling down the freeway at high speed?

During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, some did try the shaman and spirit approach for understanding this disease. The shaman and spirit folks suggested that AIDS was God's curse for homosexuality. Those who were less poetic and less meaningful in their understanding suggested that a virus was responsible and there were practical things one could do to reduce risk, pain, and suffering (testing for infection, safer sex prevention, basic research into the disease with the hope of finding a future cure or vaccine, etc). Again, I'm OK with giving up some poetry if it reduces suffering in others.

I think giving up some poetry and meaning here is a fair trade.