The Wisdom of Slow

Apparently I have a thing for misunderstood creatures.

Whereas in popular culture “weasel” has become synonymous with dishonesty and is seen as almost without virtue, I actually like them. The combination of lithe grace and almost unparalleled fierceness appeals to me.

Similarly, the sloths are some of my favourite animals of all God’s creatures, despite their reputation.

A Three-Toed Sloth. Source: The Guardian

Sloths have a bad press. Not as completely evil as the weasel, but a byword for lazy, viewed even by some naturalists as primitive, ungainly, ugly and stupid. The Ice Age trilogy had as its most completely annoying character Sid the Sloth. Admittedly, Sid is supposed to be a ground sloth, but that actually makes it worse. Ground sloths are even cooler than their modern descendents.

What virtue can I possibly find in this creature that moves at just over one mile an hour when going flat out and doesn’t even have enamel on its teeth?

There are three species of sloth remaining in the world: the two-toed sloths of the genus Chololepus and the three-toed sloths of the genus Bradypus.

This is all that remains of one of the most successful animal groups ever to come out of South America. A group which included Megatherium, a ground sloth that weighed about the same as an African elephant, stood on its back legs as tall as a giraffe and had strong enough arms to roll over a VW Beetle. A group that included Thalassocnus, an animal that pushed the limits of bizarrity even for sloths, being a marine animal adapted to swim out to sea and graze on seaweed.

A lot of sloths’ poor reputation stems from the attitudes of the early European naturalists who first described them. Here was an animal that was so different to anything that was already known from Europe, Africa or Asia that it was difficult to know what to make of it. It looked lumpy, hung upside down all the time and moved at a ridiculously slow rate. Its teeth lacked enamel. It actually had algae that grew on its fur. Its metabolic rate was so slow that it rivalled that of a sleeping bear. It wasn’t even all that good to eat.

And European naturalists being European naturalists and in love with the pseudo-Darwinian idea that there were “superior” and “inferior” creatures (and “superior” and “inferior” races of people), they dismissed the sloth as “primitive”. After all, wasn’t it self-evident that the European races were inherently superior, and those of Northern Europe most superior of all? In like manner, the creatures of Europe and its environs were automatically assumed to be superior to anything else, and the more unlike anything European something was, the further down the evolutionary totem pole it belonged.

Personally, I question the assumptions that led to this.

Sloths are perfectly designed for their environment and lifestyle. Everything we tend to think is primitive or just plain dumb is actually another adaptation to its way of life. It’s just adapted very differently to anything European.

Sloths are browsers; they feed on leaves. This is the central defining truth of the sloth, and explains almost every aspect of their oddity.

Leaves, you see, are a particularly low-calorie food. Anyone on a diet will be able to vouch for the fact that 8oz’ worth of lettuce leaves contains dramatically fewer calories than an 8oz steak. And since calories are a measure of energy, what this amounts to is that leaf-eaters don’t get as much energy per ounce of food. Leaves are difficult for animals to break down, and most animals that graze or browse have huge guts that are effectively chains of vats full of the microorganisms that can break the stuff down.

Old-World, European-type grazers and browsers are adapted to the low-energy nature of their food by spending almost all of their waking hours engaged in eating. A field of cows do practically little else; deer are the same, except with tree leaves rather than grass. They maintain a high-energy lifestyle – running and jumping and so on – by continually replenishing that energy by eating.

Sloths have a completely dfferent approach to the realities of their diet. Rather than try to maintain a high-energy, highly-active lifestyle, the sloths slow down so as not to expend any more energy than they absolutely have to.

Their metabolism is slower than any other vertebrate on the planet. Their body temperature is several degrees cooler than most mammals’, because running the furnace of an ectothermic (“warm-blooded”) metabolism at the rate of most mammals takes an awful lot of energy. By comparison, sloths are practically cold-blooded.

They hang upside-down because with their hook-shaped claws, it takes far less energy and muscle than supporting oneself on one’s limbs.

They move at the fantastic speed of 1.2 mph at what for a sloth is a flat sprint because they don’t have much muscle. Muscle takes energy to make and maintain, and energy to operate, and sloths have one simple rule: minimise energy expenditure.

Their unenamelled dentine teeth are another adaptation for their leaf-eating lifestyle. Mammals only get a maximum of two sets of teeth in their lives. This is a consequence of the way mammalian teeth have different designs depending on where in the mouth they are, and the way they interlock with each other. Mammals have some of the most complex teeth of any creature. In addition, like most other vertebrates, the teeth of all other mammals are covered in enamel. Tooth enamel is the hardest substance produced by the body; far harder than bone. It forms a thin layer over the outer surface of the tooth; under this is the dentine; a substance very similar to the bone in the rest of the skeleton.

Forming all of these complicated teeth, shedding them and growing a new set takes, you’ve guessed it, energy. Energy a sloth doesn’t have. Enamel is difficult to grow, mostly because of its hardness, and leaves are particularly tough on vertebrate teeth. It’s this more than anything else that contributes to mammals’ two tooth set limit.

Most animals than eat plants don’t have fully-enamelled grinding teeth. An elephant’s teeth, for instance, are a complex set of enamel ridges with dentine in between. Beavers and other rodents have incisors that keep growing all their lives, but those teeth are only enamelled on the front side.

Sloths have taken the process a step further. Their teeth don’t have any enamel at all. In addition, they are designed so that their continually-growing dentine teeth self-sharpen as they bite and chew their food. If you look at it from the sloth’s point of view, the feature that more than any other gets dismissed as a “primitive” trait is actually one of their most advanced adaptations.

Perhaps surprisingly, sloths can swim, and do so pretty well. There are whole sections of the Amazon basin that have such intense seasonal floods that whole areas of forest get submerged, becoming the eerie “drowned forest”. In this season, sloths actually belie their name and exhibit a pretty respectable turn of speed through the water. At least, for an animal famous for being slow. The sloth in the water isn’t going to be winning any races against penguins or seals, but he can move much faster in water than hecan on land.

The sloths’ extinct cousins the ground sloths were even more amazing. Including over 27 species in 19 genera, they were one of the few types of animal to successfully colonise North America from South America. When the last ice age ended and they became extinct, they were poised to cross the Bering land bridge into Asia. Their low metabolic rate gave them an advantage over other similarly-sized creatures, because they needed less food. They were large and strong, and it’s thought that some of the larger varieties might have supplemented their plant diet with occasional scavenging of carcasses, or even hunting. Certain Glyptodon (extinct giant armadillo weighing about the same as a VW Beetle) skeletons have been found inexplicably belly-up, and the giant ground sloth is the only thing we know about with the strength and leverage to roll one.

So sloths are awesome.

But what lessons might we get from our new knowledge of the true nature of sloths?

They’ve been dismissed for years as an object lesson on not being lazy. Their very common name is taken from the Seven Deadly Sins’ version of laziness. But if we’ve established that most of what we thought we knew about sloths is either wrong or prejudiced, what moral lesson might we draw instead?

The most obvious and timely one is simply to slow down.

The frenetic pace of life is one of the things that draws more contemporary ire than anything else. People work flat-out all the time, particularly here in the States where hard work is considered perhaps the chief of virtues. Even when we take a day off, we’re rushing off to the beach or spending the day mowing the lawn and repairing the car and the house. Our free time is something many of us claim to treasure, even while we don’t actually engage in it when we have the opportunity. I know a man who has “retired” three or four times and then come back to work, not because of financial necessity but because he just couldn’t keep away.

We are a generation of instant communications, fast internet and high-speed data sharing. We want results instantly and get impatient or frustrated when we can’t get them. As evidence, look at your driving habits. If you’re anything like me, about the worst possible situation on the road is to run into a delay caused by an accident, a traffic light misbehaving, or simply some idiot being an idiot on the piece of road you want to use.

I have to remind myself that really, it’s ok. I’m a follower of Jesus, so I’m actually going to live forever. What’s the rush?

Patience is probably the least practiced and most sought-after virtue in the modern world. The ability to set aside worry and activity and just wait.

It’s an area where, metaphorically, the sloth excels. In fact, if we were to have named the sloth after its virtues rather than its vices, it would undoubtedly be called a Patience.

We might also learn other lessons, though. Wisdom, for example. As with the sloth’s self-sharpening teeth, it’s a wise and learned individual who can in all humility sharpen themselves. We are told in the Proverbs about one man sharpening another, but to self-sharpen? It takes both the wisdom and learning to be able to use what one has to get sharper, and the humility to know exactly when you are self-sharpening and when you are fooling yourself.

Or perhaps just an appreciation for the despised. If a sloth were judged by its ability to run, it would be believed worthless. Sometimes we believe this of ourselves, or of other people. Maybe we’re just like the sloth: so uniquely different that people have a hard time understanding us.

Maybe the ability to swim in the flood of God’s presence. In the water, the sloth doesn’t need to use its weak muscles to support itself, only to gain forward motion. Or as the Scripture puts it: “He chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong”.

This peculiar wisdom of the slow comes naturally to the sloth, but is anything but natural to us in our busy, fast-paced lives.

Perhaps we could do with rehabilitating the sloth’s reputation and learning from the master of slow wisdom.


Humility (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction (containing links to all the other series posts), go here.

Last in sequence, appropriately enough, is the chivalric virtue of humility. Perhaps not a virtue we have come to associate overly with knighthood, it nonetheless comes in final and perhaps chief place as the seal of all the other virtues.

In my Mediæval Planetary symbolic scheme, humility is associated with Saturn; in the thinking of the day a baleful and malevolent planet connected with death and calamity. It seems somehow apt. Such things as ruin and calamity can come as death-blows to our idea that we are something in and of ourselves. Rightly appropriated, the leaden influence of Saturn pierces our puffed-up self-importance and arrogance. The call of Christ to take up the Cross and follow is rightly understood as a call to die.

Knights, typically, weren’t very good at humility. It was something honoured more in the breach than the observance; a virtue, yes, but one often at odds with the rest of the proud knightly code.

The knightly life in pursuit of honour often promotes pride, not humility, and the Mediæval knight was notoriously touchy about perceived slights to his honour. Star Trek’s Klingons are a warrior race whose culture revolves around honour, just like the knights of old. Honour – the praise of one’s fellows and the acclaim of one’s culture – is attained through meritorious acts, particularly courage on the battlefield. And because everyone loves a winner, especially particularly victory on the battlefield. The Miles Christi, or true Christian knight, may have elevated humility to the status of virtue, but it was a virtue not lived so much, unlike the other more martial and demonstrative virtues.

This is what happens when your idea of honour is honour before men. There’s another kind of honour, though: honour before God. The difference is rather like the difference between objective guilt and guilt feelings. Objective guilt – guilt before God, if you will – is that you did, in fact, do the unrighteous deed. You are guilty. Whether or not you feel guilty is a separate question. We all know there are people who can apparently commit the most grievous of offences and seemingly feel no guilt; no twinge of their seared conscience at all. Conversely, we can sometimes feel guilty about things for which we bear no objective guilt, for example, guilt feelings do not always miraculously go away after we get forgiven by God. Our objective guilt has been atoned for, but the feeling remains.

The Bible uses similar language, not for honour, but forhonour’s polar opposite shame. Verses such as “The one who trusts in Me will never be put to shame” suggest an objective shame, a shame before God, as well as the shame feelings we normally associate with the term. As with the guilt/righteousness axis, so with the honour/shame axis.

If our sense of honour is rooted in God, in objective honour, then it frees us to do some things that would normally be considered dishonourable. Not the objectively dishonourable things such as lying or cheating, but those things at which our pride rebels. Taking the low place, not the place of honour. Menial work. Acts of service. Tasks that are despised and considered worthless by society.

I don’t know about you, but this is looking a lot like humility to me.

Just like Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but made Himself nothing,

taking the very nature of a servant

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

He humbled Himself

and became obedient to death,

even the death of the cross.

Jesus identifying with fallen humanity in baptism, shocking the already-righteous by hanging out with evil government collaborator tax-collectors, prostitutes and drunks, humbling Himself to wash the sweaty, dirty feet of His apostles, stooping to the humiliation of hanging naked on a Roman cross.

In the eyes of the world, shameful and dishonourable. The Messiah can’t come from Nazareth – nothing good comes from there. The Messiah can’t hang out with sinners – He’s supposed to be righteous. The Messiah can’t wash my dirty feet – He’s the Master, and that’s the job of the lowest slave. And the Messiah really can’t be apparently defeated and die in one of the most painful and humiliating ways imaginable, naked in front of everyone to be jeered by the rabble. God’s honour is at stake!

Yes, it is. But rather than being an offence to God’s honour, these actually reinforce it. God sees what really is, and works in the sphere of objective honour. Man looks at the outward appearance.

When I listed off seven chivalric virtues and failed to include honour, I originally said that honour was the sum total of all of them. I may have been wrong. Honour may well be humility in disguise, looked at in a mirror.

Honour before men is rooted in pride. Objective honour, paradoxically, is willing to be dishonoured before men for true righteousness’ sake.

Not that being in a low position automatically means you’re all right in God’s eyes, either. Sometimes we can think that humility means being down on yourself. We take Paul’s self-description as “the chief of sinners” and apply it to ourselves, thinking this is what we’re supposed to do. It certainly seems properly self-effacing. Look at me, I’m so humble.

Oh dear.

Sometimes, claiming to be worse than we really are can be a sort of inverted vanity. I’m important! Look, I did big, important sins! It becomes rather like the proverbial fish that got away. “I needed grace and it was this big!

Humility is, as the Scripture puts it, “thinking of yourself with sober judgment.” Neither too highly nor too lowly, but in accordance with the view of God, the One who truly sees.

Interestingly for the Mediæval planet associated with ruin and death, Saturn was also the highest planet, nested in the uppermost of the seven planetary spheres, and thus closest to the Primum Mobile, God the Prime Mover. It somehow seems appropriate that this should be the virtue associated with seeing as God sees – seeing yourself the way you really are.

Fealty (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series looking at the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction go here.

I was in my teens when the Promise Keepers men’s movement first hit the UK. I gathered that it was some sort of men’s thing, but I never really felt like I got a straight answer to my questions as so what it was about. It seemed to me like they were running on an assumption that everyone already knew what they were about.  Well, “everyone” didn’t: ” So it’s about encouraging men to be faithful to their wives, then?” Well, that’s part of it, but there are other promises…” “Huh?”

It didn’t connect. I used the word “promise” very seldom, and much of what they were trying to talk about just didn’t fit into my categories of what constituted promises. Didn’t Jesus effectively teach us not to make vows of that sort? In my mind, I didn’t make “promises”, therefore they had nothing to say to me.

Maybe now I understand a little better what they were trying to say. What I think they they meant was encapsulated in the chivalric virtues of Faith and Fealty.

There’s no guarantee I would have understood back then even if they’d used those words, but I might have done. The likelihood of anyone using the word “fealty” in order to make it clear what they were talking about, though, is and was effectively nil.

It’s an old word, replete with significance but seldom used today. In our modern Western democratic world, we don’t see things in the stratified way of the Middle Ages. Everyone’s equal, and fealty is about vertical relationships. We don’t have much use for it.

Of all of the seven chivalric virtues I’m identifying, fealty may well be the trickiest to update, tied so closely as it is to Mediæval notions of innate class distinctions. What does it look like in the democratic age?

In modern terms, “allegiance” is probably the closest we come to the full sense of its meaning. At its best, this gives us pictures of patriotism, of the love of country and the claims it may make on us. Apparently some Christians are so into the use of romantic imagery for God that they consider it inappropriate for our relationship with Him. Jason Gray’s “More Like Falling In Love” seems to suggest that “giving my allegiance” is some cold, distant, bloodless thing that doesn’t really mean very much.

Not in my personal universe it isn’t, but it shows how little use most of the modern world has for the idea.

America in particular is home to a spirit that runs directly counter to the notion of fealty. At best, it manifests itself in a love of freedom that is noble and right. At its worst, it devolves into a rebellious “no-one tells me what to do!” The virtue of fealty is that no, actually someone does have the right to tell you what to do.

There are people here in America that don’t like the current president. I can’t legally vote, so I feel like I’m messing in dangerous waters here, but I understand this. In any democratic system there are going to be people who voted for the other candidate and can’t stand the one that got elected. But he’s still the leader of the country, and the office is bigger than the one filling it, something that some people appear to have forgotten.

Allegiance is in part about belonging to something greater than yourself. Being a follower in a right sense: submitting your individual freedom to a higher cause and purpose.

It’s a hard thing: harsh, uncompromising, uncomfortable. This is not feel-good. We like to hear how Jesus is our Lover and Friend and Saviour. We find it rather less pleasant to hear how He’s our Overlord and Master and Sovereign. But like all hard substances, it makes a jolly good foundation.

You don’t build a house on soft clay and expect it to bear up as if it’s on rock. All of the piers and piles and digging down and moisture conditioning that we do in the construction industry are designed to mitigate the negative effects of unstable soils, particularly, here in North Texas, clays. It makes me wonder how many of our discipleship programs and conferences and special events are the same sort of thing: stuff designed to mitigate the effects of our self-centred Gospel because we haven’t been building on the bedrock of Jesus’ right to tell us what to do.

In my Mediæval planetary symbolic scheme, Fealty is associated with Jupiter, the kingly planet. The association is obvious, but the ancient conception of Jupiter was not only solemn majesty and kingly power, but also joy. Gustav Holst, in his The Planets suite, made Jupiter “the Bringer of Jollity”; this is pure Mediævalism in a good way, and exactly the way the most important planet was viewed.

Joy in allegiance?

Absolutely. Certainly there’s a joy in it. A patriot doesn’t feel that their country is a burden, nor that its demands are unreasonable. Following Jesus is joy and peace. He makes demands of us, but we know that, unlike our countries that are governed by fallible people and can even get it horribly wrong at times, God is absolutely good and really does have our best interests at heart, and unlike us, He’s omniscient, so He knows far better than we what our real best interests are.

Loyalty is the other half of Fealty, and where it begins to overlap with the chivalric virtue of Faith. Sticking by your friends. Staying true. Keeping faith, in the Mediæval sense. Not abandoning an allegiance given just because it’s becoming less comfortable.

Allegiance and loyalty.

Like the knights of old, we can choose whom we give personal allegiance to. The oath of fealty was a special vow of allegiance that went beyond the normal requirements of hierarchical position: you pledged your life, your honour and your sword to the service of your liege lord. It was a deeply personal thing that goes way beyond some of our modern understanding of the giving of allegiance – witness the American oath of citizenship in which one renounces “all other allegiances” and the non-enforcement of that by the US government.

To my mind, “Liege Lord” encompasses things about our right relationship with God that simply cannot be expressed in the romantic “Lover” image we seem so fond of at the moment. As I’ve said before, choosing to follow Christ isn’t so much falling in love as pledging fealty.

I may be weirdly anachronistic in my approach, but this is the way I feel. I pledge my life, honour and sword – all that I am, all that I have and all that I do – to Him, knowing He’s good and that He loves me.

There’s an old patriotic hymn that seems appropriate here. Its music, aptly enough, is taken from Holst’s Jupiter, and though it’s seldom sung any more, with my Mediæval mindset, of course it’s one I have a deep attachment to.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love

The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price

The love that makes, undaunted, the final sacrifice

And there’s another Country I’ve heard of long ago

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering

And soul by soul, and silently, her shining bounds increase

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Parts of it may be questionable in our modern times. “The love that asks no questions” sounds eerily like the “just following orders” mentality of every Secret Police we’ve ever heard about. Combine it with our “freedom-loving” rebellious “no-one tells me what to do!” attitude and we’re looking at an uphill struggle to understand.

Fealty does not absolve you of the demands of conscience. What it does is negate the demands of comfort. There may be good reasons to abandon your loyalty to a cause or a person, but there’s a world of difference between abandoning your loyalty for just cause and abandoning your loyalty just because (And different people will view what constitutes “just cause” differently).

Fealty, after all, goes both ways. The one who pledges fealty makes claims on the one to whom they pledge just as surely as the other way around. Lord Steward Denethor’s response to Pippin’s oath of fealty in The Lord of the Rings is instructive: “And I see it, and will not fail to reward what is offered: service with love, fealty with honour, oathbreaking with vengeance.”

After the fact, Gandalf is a little more cautious. “It was nobly done, whatever put it into your fool head… Still, you are his, now, and he will not forget it.”

This is fealty in its essence. Applied to God, we are His now, and He will not forget it.

Let us not forget just Whose we are.

Largesse (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction, go here.

Probably the one of the knight Roland’s chivalric vows (from the Mediæval Song of Roland) that intrigues me the most is the vow “to despise pecuniary reward”.

This fairly closely matches my own attitude, but it’s scarcely a common one, particularly in our modern business- and entrepreneurship-worshipping culture.

The idea of payment is central to our Western democratic Capitalism: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. The wealth of nations. The law of supply and demand. Entrepreneurship – the idea that you can start a new business and make good money doing it, and that that is always and only a good thing – is deeply embedded in American culture.

And it’s alien to me.

Not because of some transatlantic difference, but because of me. I’m what I describe as an “economics atheist” – I don’t believe in the worship of money. Not only that, but I mistrust and do not like the avaricious impulse that seems to be at the heart of it all.

When I was in Central Asia, my first language teacher gave me the local name Zhomart. Names in the local culture are almost as significant as they are in the Bible, and most of the time, when the locals rename a foreigner the name is very apt. The literal meaning of Zhomart is “generous”, and for a long time I puzzled over why this would be deemed so apt. My best friend (whose local name translated to “wing” and carried the connotation of support) excelled much more than I in the grace of giving. We joked a few times that we needed to switch names – he was the generous one, and I… Well, I wing it.

Looking at the Mediæval idea of largesse, however, and in particular the knight Roland’s peculiar vow, I’m struck by how very appropriate the name is. I don’t really care about making money. As long as I have enough, and so far I do, I’m really not that concerned with getting more.

This is perhaps not quite the true thrust of the vow, but the attitude of opposition to Mammon and holding worldly wealth lightly is certainly allied. The idea of despising pecuniary reward means not doing things with the idea of getting paid. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because you’re going to get something out of it. The distinction being drawn is between the knight and the mercenary.

The knight is supposed to fight for what’s right. The mercenary will fight for whoever pays them.

The knight is concerned with honour. The mercenary is concerned with payment.

The knight fights for the welfare of all. The mercenary fights for the welfare of self.

The knight wants to serve. The mercenary wants to get rich.

The mercenary impulse seems overwhelmingly common in this day and age. The stock market dominates all. Buying and selling of goods, services, time and information transcend national boundaries and make the world what it is.

There’s nothing wrong with getting paid for what you do, but the Kingdom of God (and the knightly code, too) operates on a higher level than buying and selling.

The generous attitude of largesse stands opposed to the avaricious and mercenary impulses. Star Trek’s Ferengi, with their “Rules of Acquisition”, sum up the mercenary impulse; the First Rule is “once you have their money, you never give it back”.

Frankly, I find Klingons easier to understand. The whole business of acquisitiveness seems somehow… sordid. My view of money is more that it’s a necessary evil than that it’s a good thing in itself.

It’s a very knightly attitude, but I’m unlikely to ever get rich.

I’m fully aware that my attitude is fairly extreme, and probably unrealistic on a large scale, but I do think we could all do with a bit more largesse.

What would the world look like if corporations were a little more concerned with doing the right thing than doing the profitable thing? What would it be like if we could stop being afraid of not having enough? What would happen if we learned contentment when we have enough rather than a continual desire for more?

Largesse, simply defined, is open-handedness. It resists the thinking of the modern corporate world that “money isn’t the most important thing – it’s the only thing”. There’s nothing wrong with having money, or getting paid. But money is a terrible master even if you have it, and it’s one of the few things that can get a hold of you without you getting a hold of it.

Even on the left side of the political spectrum, we often act as though money is everything. What is the redistribution of wealth but an attempt to use money to fix all our problems? I find it instructive that the one false god we never put a name to is the only one that Jesus named: Mammon. Mammon is the opposite of largesse; the idea that “money is the only thing” or that “only money can make things happen” or that “only money can help”. Trust in the almighty dollar rather than the Almighty God.

Largesse is generosity, the cure for covetousness and avarice and the cause of thankfulness. Holding wealth lightly, able to give where needed, and not seeking payment as an end in itself.

Payment, of course comes in multiple forms, and coin is not the only currency there is. The mercenary impulse also manifests in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mindset that can result in false expectations or a reciprocal rather than generous outlook.

In our teaching on husbands and wives, we’re often told that “men need respect, women need love”.  Like, men don’t also need love, and women don’t also need respect?  Or the idea that “men give love for sex, and women give sex for love”. The idea often comes across, even in Christian teachings, that when a husband does something nice for his wife, like helping with the housework or buying her flowers or something, that she’s supposed to reciprocate in the bedroom.  (If I hadn’t heard it myself, I’d think this was a straw man argument, but…)

While it’s true that no wife is going to feel interested in sex on a Saturday night if you’ve been being a jerk to her all week, the reciprocity at the heart of this idea bothers me.

Actually, that’s putting it mildly. I think it’s in danger of turning our wives into whores. If we have an expectation that they will do something nice for us in the bedroom if we do something nice for us around the house, how is that not sex for payment?

Man up, guys. You signed on to an equal partnership when you got married, and part of that is doing your share. Caring for your wife. Doing nice things for her because you love her, not for some kind of payment. Giving her the respect she deserves (Proverbs 31:31). Largesse in the marriage relationship.  Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing.

It’s part of being a man by the code of chivalric virtues.

Historically, the Mediæval planet Sol, the sun, was associated with largesse and liberality. Solar deities were often associated with dragon-slaying, and in the Western tradition dragons hoarded gold and gems. If dragons personify Mammon and greed, the dragon-slaying Sol is appropriate for the opposition to Mammon characterised by the virtue of largesse. Let us, like the sun, not hold onto our “light” but shed it abroad, freely giving as we have freely received.

Mercy (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction, go here.

The qualities of courtesy and mercy go together. The idea of courtesy can also be expressed as graciousness, being full of grace, and grace and mercy together are the two primary character attributes of God.

I am, however, for the purposes of this series unifying the virtues of justice and mercy, which is a little less immediately obvious.

I’ve blogged before on the subject of justice and mercy, and much of what I’ve already said is also applicable here. However, this series comes at the subject from a slightly different angle, so it may be worth reiterating.

As a knightly virtue, what is mercy? And what is justice? The chivalric vows of the Song of Roland include vows “to fight for the welfare of all”, “to give succour to widows and orphans”, “to protect the weak and defenceless” and “to eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit”. All of these vows could realistically be viewed through a lens of either mercy or justice; in practical terms, the chivalric outworking of mercy and justice is identical.

In short, showing mercy means fighting for justice. In the situation of an offence, compassion for both victim and perpetrator means we want to see justice done. Justice, not revenge: vengeance is not ours to grasp, but rests with the Lord as the ultimate Sovereign and the only One with all of the facts. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was a step forward in terms of justice, setting forth the idea of punitive balance and limiting the sentence to the equivalence of the crime. Even today, we look at some sentences and decry them as unreasonably harsh.

But at the same time, showing mercy for a victim means fighting for justice for them. Protecting the weak and defenceless; those who cannot protect themselves.

In chivalric terms, justice and mercy run together as the constraint on our strength. Might is to be used in the service of Right, whether our “might” is literal physical strength or economic muscle or popularity and persuasiveness or positional authority.

This is what separates the knight from the bully. Bullies use their strength in no-one’s service but their own, to cow, terrorise and dominate. We can see the bullies in all walks of life – physical bullies, emotional bullies, economic bullies, political bullies, authoritarians and petty despots…

Fighting against these doesn’t always involve fists. In fact, in most cases that’s the least desirable option. But mercy requires that unrighteousness be opposed.

This is how God can be a God of love and a God of wrath. Evil really is evil, and mercy means doing what is in your power to end the suffering it causes.

In Divine terms, making a final end of evil will be so final that only righteousness will endure. And we none of us measure up to that absolute standard. In the wisdom of God, there’s a way through the apparently irreconcilable imperatives of love for humanity and anger against the hurt caused by evil. We can be brought to the side of righteousness.

Mercy and justice both are the outworking of love and compassion. Seeing a need (widows and orphans, the weak and defenceless) and taking steps to do something about it. Standing up for those who cannot do so. Doing good to those that need it.

Legend has a name for those warriors who embody all of the knightly qualities but this one: the Black Knight. Of dauntless courage, courteous, loyal to his liege and even possessed of a towering integrity, the Black Knight is nonetheless black-hearted and evil, a symbol of warrior virtue gone wrong, because they have no mercy in them and are contemptuous of weakness. Let us not go there, but rather, use the symbol of the Black Knight as a lesson in the importance of this virtue. Because anyone can be brave, but it takes a truly strong person to show mercy.

In the planetary terms of my Mediæval cosmological symbol scheme, Mercy is of course associated with Venus. In the planetary symbology of the Middle Ages, Venus and Mars stood for the feminine and masculine archetypes. A legacy of this is the use of the planetary symbols of those planets to represent male and female in biological texts. Indeed, that association has become the norm, and many have probably forgotten their origins as planetary symbols.

Interestingly, though, we as Christians often seem to want to feminise mercy. Spiritual gift inventories are particularly prone to this in my experience, which can often leave men who score highly in mercy feeling somewhat uncertain or disappointed.

Mercy need not be entirely feminine, however, any more than courage need be entirely masculine. The Scripture is full of both courageous women and merciful men.

We shouldn’t be in the situation where we have to rescue the manly qualities of mercy or detail what a masculine mercy looks like, but somehow we appear to be there anyway. For the record; nowhere does the Scripture indicate that any of the spiritual gifts are segregated by gender, least of all mercy. Perhaps we could do with letting go of our Christian cultural gender expectations a little and not trying to second-guess the Almighty Giver of Gifts in what He is doing.

If this post can broaden a few minds as to what mercy might look like, then my job here is done.

Courtesy (Chivalric Virtues series)

This is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the introduction to the series, go here.

Courtesy is pretty well universally recognised as an admirable quality, but a lot of the time we are left with some kind of idea that it’s weak.

We have an idea that it’s somehow unmanly, or a sign of weakness, or an invitation to be taken advantage of. At best, it’s a kind of “good but prissy” virtue associated with daintiness and knowing which fork to use rather than anything resembling strength.

And yet it’s one of the chivalric virtues, almost universally acknowledged as such even in the Middle Ages when chivalry was a warrior code first and foremost. Let’s see if we can strip away the prissiness and reveal the strong heart of this excellent virtue.

It’s also something that Christians aren’t always very good at. We often get the idea that “standing for truth” means that we can overlook courtesy. After all, isn’t the Truth more important than someone’s hurt feelings?

Not to the Mediæval way of thinking. The beauty of the code of chivalry was that it combined the greatest acts of bravery and self-sacrifice with the least deeds of politeness and respect, unifying both in a single whole. To this code of honour, being courteous is not less important than speaking the truth; it is the same. Biblically, we are instructed to “speak the truth in love”; the “in love” part is neither more nor less important than the “speaking the truth” part. It is not loving to fail to speak the truth, nor is it truthful to neglect the love of Christ which ought to be what compels us to speak in the first place.

In the knight Roland‘s chivalric vows, the vows to “always respect the honour of women”, to “guard the honour of fellow knights” and to “refrain from the wanton giving of offence” speak to the idea of courtesy. It’s this last that we as Christians seem to fall down on most readily. Don’t go out of your way to be offensive.

This is not to say that we need to deny the truth or fail to address issues of righteousness. But you know as well as I do when something is likely to offend, and chances are that either there’s a better way of saying it or it doesn’t need to be said at all.

People are offendable enough by the Cross anyway without us going out of our way to ram unpalatable “truths” down their throats.

And yes, there may be times when the most loving thing to do is to break the bounds of what would normally be considered courteous and call someone out on their crap. But if you’re finding that these times come along every time it’s day, you may be missing the point.

Courtesy also includes “guarding the honour of fellow knights”. Assuming the best of others, even if they are opponents or rivals. I have Christian friends whose Facebook pages are an almost unbroken stream of attacks against this person or that person for “heresy” or “worldliness” or whatever. You may find aspects of their teaching to be erroneous or unhelpful, but these are, metaphorically speaking, fellow knights. “Heresy” is a big and very loaded charge; the theological debating equivalent of nuclear weapons. There are times when it’s called for, but just because someone disagrees with you on the finer points of how to apply a particular Scripture does not make them a heretic.

Courtesy. Showing our fellows the benefit of the doubt. Not going out of our way to make uncalled-for personal attacks.

It’s interesting that this is part of a warrior code. As much as I generally disagree with the NRA in most circumstances, they may have a point when they talk about an armed society being a polite society. As usual, though, I think they may have it backwards. There’s very little intrinsic to the carrying of weapons that makes people act courteously. An armed society needs to be a polite society, because of the intrinsic danger in offending an armed person.

Collectively speaking, they’re right in the long term, because those who aren’t polite will get eliminated from an armed society. But it’s not an automatic thing; courtesy must be trained. It’s a virtue; if it were automatic to the possession of arms, we would not characterise it as such. Anyone could access virtue merely by picking up a gun, and there have been enough criminal acts committed using weapons that we know this to be untrue.

Still, for the trained man (for such were the knights), there may conceivably be something about strapping on that weapon that reinforces the seriousness of what you are about. This is not a situation for easy offendedness, nor is it a situation in which you can give offence with impunity. I can’t speak experientially to whether this is the case or no, but it is conceivable.

Attaining the virtue of courtesy does not mean that we bend over backwards to remove everything that might possibly cause offence and tie ourselves in knots to please our fellow man, but at the same time we don’t go out of our way to be offensive and then cry persecution when people get upset. Courtesy is a virtue, yes, but it is one among seven, and the true path of chivalry lies in mastering them all. Faith-integrity will not allow us to become chamæleonic using the excuse of “being courteous”. But courtesy remains one of the virtues, and we may not overstep it either.

In my planetary symbolic scheme, courtesy is associated with Mercury. Mythologically, Mercury was the messenger; the creator of words and lord of language. The proper use of language naturally falls in that sphere, and though language alone does not constitute courtesy, it plays a large part.

In modern cosmology, Mercury is the smallest planet, and courtesy may be something like the least virtue, with others like courage and faith seeming to play a more substantial part. Yet the virtue of Mercury, too, is important, particularly as Christians. Are we not messengers ourselves?

Faith (Chivalric Virtues series)

This is one of a series of posts on the chivalric virtues.  I am identifying seven chivalric virtues as detailed in this introduction.

I was initially intending to talk about courage as the first virtue in this series. It’s how I numbered them when I was originally coming up with the list. However, I’m feeling particularly uninspired to talk about courage right now, so I’m choosing to focus this time on faith.

There’s some justification for doing so. After I published the introduction and its list of seven chivalric virtues, I realised that if I combined mercy and justice (something that many will probably think is weird, but I have my reasons) and separated Humility and Fealty, then I could indeed tie them to the seven Mediæval planets as an interesting and altogether quite apt secondary symbolic system. Faith would, under this schema, be associated with Luna, which is the first of the Planets in ascending order. It makes a certain amount of sense.  The list of virtues is thus:

  1. Faith (Luna)
  2. Courtesy (Mercury)
  3. Mercy (Venus)
  4. Largesse (Sol)
  5. Courage (Mars)
  6. Fealty (Jupiter)
  7. Humility (Saturn)

Faith in its Mediæval sense is a considerably broader and (I would argue) deeper concept than our modern usage would suggest. In our regular usage, the primary meaning of faith is religious feeling or belief. We talk about our Christian faith, and about other faiths.

Our secondary meaning is closer to the Mediæval sense, but still lacks some of the full meaning of the term. We tell each other to “have faith” in a time of crisis – to keep on believing that God is good and that He will come through for us.

It’s still all about belief, though.

Faith in the Mediæval sense is less about a mere “belief” (like belief in ghosts or ufos) and far more about trust.

The knight Roland‘s chivalric vows included vows “to keep faith” and “always to tell the truth”, which are far more about one’s character than one’s beliefs. Allied far more to the Biblical idea of faithfulness, faith is perhaps best thought of as integrity and its outworking. Keeping our word. Being holy, because of Whose we are. Actively trusting God even in the face of circumstances. This is no mere “belief”. It’s a solid trust that God is who He says He is.

In the Bible, faith and faithfulness are often the same word. If you have faith, in this sense, you will be faithful. Integrity stems from trust in God and produces trustworthiness. The inside matches the outside, and both match Reality.

But why tie this to the Moon?

In Mediæval thought, the Moon was on the boundary, both subject to change (like the human realm) and constant (like the heavens). Above the Moon, one was in the heavenly places, where God’s will is done perfectly as we are told to pray it will be here on earth. Below the Moon, there is doubt and uncertainty, things are not what they seem and God’s good laws can have disastrous effects on our fallen natures. Above the Moon, there is certainty and full knowledge, even as we are fully known. The Moon, in Mediæval cosmology, was the boundary.

Thus, Luna embodies the idea of faith. Here below the Moon, we may not know, we cannot tell. All we can do is trust. Here below the Moon, there is uncertainty and things are not as they appear, but as citizens of a heavenly Kingdom it behooves us to live with the integrity of the upper realm.

The Moon was said to produce wanderings, not only physical travel but in the wits. The word is “lunacy” for a reason: it was thought to be the result of Lunar influence. Spiritually, this reminds us that we live beneath the Moon as “aliens and strangers in the world”, and that faith can sometimes look like madness. This world is not our permanent home. We’re on a journey, wandering beneath the moon, though as Tolkien reminded us, “not all those who wander are lost”.

Here below, faith looks like lunacy. Not only trust in God but trustworthiness and integrity are sometimes considered ridiculous. (Can you be a successful salesperson or politician and tell the truth at all times? If not, why not?) Faith (not only trust in God but also integrity) requires us to live as citizens of a Heavenly Kingdom.  If the outside lived in this world matches the inside transformed into the image of God, then certainly we are going to look strange. We cannot but help look like lunatics if we are going to be true to ourselves as a new creation in Christ.

An episode in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair brings out what I mean. The two children, the newly-rescued Prince Rilian plus the gloomy but fundamentally honest Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum have been captured by an evil witch in Underland who is trying to lay them under an enchantment. Her siren-song causes them to forget their quest, forget Narnia, forget even Aslan Himself. But all of a sudden Puddleglum speaks up:

“You may be right. Your world may be the only world there is. But it’s a pretty poor world. WE may be just four babies playing a game, but four babies can create a play-world that licks the real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to live as much like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.”

He has kept faith. He’s true to the real Narnia even in the face of his own doubts of its existence. He speaks and acts with integrity and truth.

This is what faith is. Not “believing something you know isn’t true”. Not some mystical energy that causes God to do what we want, but being true to what is Really Real.