Chapter 15. Differing over Difference

Once young Martin had qualified for his “captain’s papers” he was free to take the outboard-powered cartop boat anywhere in the inlet within sight of home base. He and Karen quickly learned for themselves the marine lore of the area—where dangerous submerged rocks lurked, where the ospreys and eagles nested, and where there were good fishing spots. The two of them kept us supplied with fresh fish.

On one of those glorious sunny mornings when the sea was unrippled and reflecting like a mirror, the two kids took their fishing gear and headed for the other side of the inlet. In a little bay between two big rocky points they dropped anchor.

What a beautiful day! It was so quiet there that if they dropped a fishknife in the boat, the sound would echo back from the shore. Bits of bark and seaweed slowly drifted past. As they hauled up their fishing lines to check their bait, big circles would widen around the drops that dripped back into the water. Sometimes a fly would come by to give the boat a buzz of inspection, then pass. Their drowsy, peaceful fishing was quite uninterrupted by bites.

Suddenly the stillness was shattered by an abrupt and explosive outburst, followed by a wheezing, pattering hiss.


The kids half sprang to their feet. The boat rocked violently. Ready and tense, they looked at each other. “What was that?”

All was quiet and tranquil. They slowly subsided onto their seats. But just when their feelings had begun to settle down, suddenly—


That thing went off again, even louder this time. Then, after an eternity, there it was, between them and the point. A great black dorsal fin, as tall as Martin, emerged from the water. It slipped up, over and under like a warning knife brandished by some submerging giant. The smooth black back of a sea monster disappeared silently below the surface before their terrified eyes. Martin yelled, “It’s a killer whale!” Let’s get out of here!”

He grabbed the anchor rope, hauled it up a few feet off bottom and handed the rope to his sister. The motor started first try. At once Martin revved it up to full speed and drove the boat scrapety-scrape up onto the closest beach, dragging the anchor and fishing lines out behind.

From the safety of the shore they watched as the huge creature surfaced again and again. When it blew and breathed it sounded like an air cannon going off, followed by a rush of air and the patter of falling water drops. Every so often it came up and blew, until it disappeared behind the far point. After an eternity of anxious watching and waiting, the kids became convinced that the whale had really left the neighborhood. They decided to chance the run for home. They dragged the boat back into the water and set off at full throttle. Never has open water been scanned so carefully by two pairs of eyes.

Much to their relief, Karen and Martin arrived safely, without any more close encounters of any kind. What a story they had to tell us! They vowed never to go over to that place again. (But they did!)

We heard later that a pod of four killer whales had been driven into an inlet over near Pender Harbor. A fisherman named Cecil had stretched his nets across the mouth of the inlet and was hoping to sell his penned-up catch to some aquarium. In the meantime a psychologist had tried to train the whales to come and be fed when he played music by the Beatles. One night, however, the biggest of the whales, “Skookum Cecil,” projected his three tons over the line of net-floats and regained his freedom. Since his escape no one had seen him but our kids!

Other people later reported sighting the whale in our inlet. For three days, two fishing boats and a boat from the Vancouver Aquarium followed the big fellow up and down the inlet. He had to come up every so often to “blow.”

We somehow lost our fear of Skookum Cecil. At night we too went out in the boat to tag along after him from what seemed a safe distance. He would come up to the surface periodically to breathe. Each mighty “Poo-oo-h—iss-ss” was accompanied by a golden fountain of phosphorescence. The great streamlined body was outlined by the shimmering white gold light of plankton in the water. Beautiful.

Skookum Cecil just played with the fishermen who were hunting him. Even Beatles music couldn’t hold him enthralled. He would simply change his course, diving and coming up in some unexpected quarter. We were somehow glad when that independent spirit of the open seas finally gave them all the slip.

Some of his pod, I believe, were sold to aquarium associations in West Coast cities. I sometimes wonder if the big fellow ever swims past the shore installations where they live and perform in captivity, and whether they might be able somehow to communicate with each other.

The day after the whale hunt ended, a sudden heavy blow came down the inlet out of the north. Kay and I were out in the rowboat when the wind struck. Kay noticed that our catamaran was no longer in its usual position moored offshore. Somehow in the mounting waves it had come adrift from its anchorage and was heading for the rocks downshore. Kay took over the oars, and despite the wild water I managed to catch hold of the big boat’s mooring rope, diverting its course toward Pedersens’ wharf. As usual Herb Carson came to our rescue. From the wharf he caught hold of the catamaran by a sidestay and held on. Struggling with the awful breakers, we eventually maneuvered our boat safely around to the leeward side of that wharf.

We soon figured out what had happened to break the boat loose. On the first night of the whale hunt the aquarium’s boat had come into Fido Bay to ask about overnight docking facilities. The skipper could see us around our campfire. Turning around in the dark, he had broken off the prow of one of our catamaran’s pontoons. In that accident the propeller of the aquarium’s boat must have also nicked the nylon moorage rope of ours. Due to the extra strain from the sudden squall the remaining strands of that damaged rope had given way. If at the time we hadn’t been on hand out there in the rowboat, our catamaran would soon have been hopelessly smashed on the rocks below the cliff.

That night in a dream I saw an ugly rock plunge its cruel, barnacled beak into the side of a pontoon. The splintering destruction just sickened me, and I woke up shuddering. When I was building that boat, those plywood panels had been warped into place, seated and screwed down with the utmost care. The thought of some heartless rock crashing its way through one of them, crunching out a great jagged hole in my beloved boat, hurt too much for me to contemplate. Any thin material, even metal, would have been dented, crumpled or pierced. Such are the marks that rocks leave on things that float.

The next morning dawned bright and fair. The tide was out and I went over to look at the catamaran where we had tied it up at the wharf. Its pontoons were now resting on soft sand. There were animal tracks in the sand. A mink hurrying along the rocks had been overcome by curiosity. It had darted out across the sand and leaped up on the deck. After inspecting the craft hastily, it had jumped down again onto the beach and headed back to the rocks. Its feet left prints in the smooth sand—a record of its little excursion.

My marks were there too on the sand. Not just my footprints, but a whole boat that I had made. If that plywood had come into someone else’s possession, it would likely have been used in flat form elsewhere, cut to some other shape. The pair of spruce “two-by-sixes” that I had carved and glued together into a hollow mast might have long since become ceiling joists under some Ontario roof. Without me, that particular wood would not have been resting there on that sand.

That boat was only one of the many sets of marks that I have made on the world. Our sea wall, our shelter, the excavation, my family, to say nothing of my occupational activities through the years—none of these different marks would ever have existed if I had not made them. That killer whale’s invasion of Sechelt Inlet had made its particular kind of difference to our lives—the dangerous adventure, the scarred catamaran, the repaired anchorage, and Karen’s lurking fear about swimming out into water deep enough for a whale.

Somehow through such experiences I became conscious that whatever I was doing, wherever I might be, I was at that moment making a difference to something. I began to grope for a way of understanding what it means to make a difference.

I noted that when I sat down with the others for breakfast, automatically no one else could sit in that place at the table. My very presence made a difference. Until God’s blessing had been asked on our food and day, none of us would lift our spoons to eat. The little prayer made a difference. I would cut the top off a boiled egg. My straight knife left its mark, making flat planes on the two severed sections of egg. When I was taking some butter for my toast, if I scraped butter off the cold square on the butter plate, the curved, serrated form of my knife-edge left a concavity with tiny, parallel ridge-lines. The knife in my hand had imposed new forms from itself onto the original forms of the egg and the slab of butter.

It was exciting to learn what it means to make a difference. A stronger new form comes in and overpowers a previous and weaker form. One changes the other into a different form.

When the tide has gone down, the surface of the sandy beach is uniformly flat. Then an animal’s foot, with its own peculiar form, presses down into the damp sand. It leaves behind it a form which is neither foot nor flatness, but a footprint—the new form produced by the meeting of two different forms.

Our moorage buoy was connected to its anchorage by a strong rope. Along came the sharp moving form of a propeller blade which severed most of the strands in the rope’s form and left it much weakened. A projecting rock would have poked its own peculiar shape of hole into my hapless pontoon if it had struck it with force. Into a peaceful fishing situation swam the huge form of a spouting killer whale. His coming created an entirely different scene—hectic activity, noisy excitement and a beached boat. Skookum Cecil had made a whale of a difference! In each of these cases, when two forms met, a different form or state of affairs emerged from the meeting.

The new form that thus emerges from the meeting of two forms partly depends upon the comparative hardnesses of the impacting forms. The mink’s foot did not make much of an impression on the hard deck of my boat, but it sank a little into the yielding sand. My knife could easily slice the top off an egg, but if I had tried to slice off a chunk of rock with the same knife, the blade would have been nicked and blunted.

The form that emerges from a collision of forms depends upon the respective abilities of each to resist distortion. In a certain situation some forms are dominant. Others are submissive. Power is ability to make a difference without being significantly changed during the action.

Materials also differ in their ability to retain forms which have been pressed in upon them. A mink’s footprint will last longer in damp sand than it will if the mink simply puts its foot into water. A statue carved from stone will probably survive one carved from butter. If a detective investigating a break-in could see the actual difference which the burglar’s activities had made to the distribution of individual air molecules within the house, a valuable description of the trespasser could be obtained. But prints in air, like prints in water, lose their shapes immediately. The detective may, however, discover some papers which fell off a table onto the floor as the burglar hurried past. These traces of the prowler’s activities remain—clues to his movements. Deeds having been done, the resulting rearrangement of the scene often provides enough surviving evidence to convict a guilty person.

A differing makes a difference

While some forms of materials resist alteration more successfully than others, all are subject to penetration, distortion, breakage, phase change and reorganization. Nothing continues to be exactly the same forever. Things are always under tensions and pressures of some kind. Transformation—the process of becoming different—is the most factual fact we ever encounter in this world. It is essential to life and consciousness and the very existence of anything whatsoever.

If all transformation were to cease, you and I would die instantly. All our vital activities would come to a dead stop. Hearts would quit beating. Nerves would neither conduct sensory impulses nor launch muscular movements outward. If all change ceased, no winds would blow, no waters would flow, no sounds would be made and no ears would hear. Such a world would be stagnant, unfeeling, verbless, pointless, DEAD. If all subatomic motion ceased, it is likely that the world as a whole would collapse.

When conditions around us remain much the same for a long time, we tend to look for new things or drift into daydreaming or nod off to sleep. The unchanging is definitely uninteresting.

Driving on a long, straight freeway can easily bring on sleep. Sometimes I have driven a stretch of several miles with no recollection of having seen anything. But let a car ahead of me suddenly swerve off the road, or some strange sound arise from my own car’s anatomy, and I will instantly rouse to alertness. No matter how drowsy the driver, the sound of a police siren will immediately make the quality of driving become consciously circumspect. Consciousness arises only in the presence of difference, or in the deliberate search for differences.

Consciousness and unfamiliarity go together. On the first day I ever drove a car, I had to make every move very deliberately. I was very careful every time I shifted gears, turned the steering wheel or applied the brakes. Because every move in the sequence was so new to me, the whole effort required a great deal of conscious attention and psychic energy. But having driven a car for all these years, I can now run through the driving procedure automatically almost without putting my brain in gear. Habitual trains of action seldom require much conscious thought.

The idle scanning of a clear sky can be as drowsily monotonous as driving for hours on a straight, empty freeway. When the listless sweep of my vision suddenly encounters a black dot up above, something quite different from the endless blue, my scanning immediately stops until I decide whether it’s a bird, a plane, or you-know-who.

First thing in the morning when I come down to the shelter at Sechelt, I glance over the waters of the inlet, looking for a drifting log that might be hauled in for firewood. A log in the water doesn’t meld smoothly into its uniform background. At the log my eye encounters a place of discontinuity where the homogeneous spread of featureless or similar surroundings is interrupted and a different form suddenly appears. The stretch of the sky likewise comes to an end at the horizon, where something new begins. The expanse of the wave-tossed sea stops at the shore. Here the land with all its differences begins.

Part of the essence of being a thing consists in possessing definite edges. What lies on one side of each edge is discernibly different from its surroundings on the other side. When all the edges are joined together to form one continuous, enclosing outline form, the contents of the closed form are seen to be collectively different in character from all else in its immediate vicinity.

Our identification of things depends very largely upon the shape of these sharply defined boundaries or surface contours. A straight line may take a sharp turn, or curve gently to one side. There may be projections or hollows, smoothness or textures, beginnings and endings, and all of these may occur in a certain characteristic, orderly sequence. The recognition and reproduction of such characteristic differences is what drawing is all about. Children’s coloring books, dot-to-dot books and the like have been produced to acquaint children with the differences between various outline forms, and to teach them the appropriate names that are so important for speech. The military art of camouflage aims to blur the outlines of soldiers and war machines into the patterns of their surroundings. The colored patterns of the background seem to continue right across, say, a camouflaged tank, without being interrupted by the tank’s actual edges. Perception depends upon differences. Our minds cannot handle a blur of homogeneous sameness.

Inside the old rail fence, a field of grass, weeds and shrubs can be seen to be, not a road, not a plowed field, not a field of grain, but a meadow. The meadow was given its different name because within it there are significant differences from other kinds of areas. If some wood were piled in a corner of the meadow, that distinctive region within the meadow’s distinguishable region would be entitled to its own name: a woodpile. Examining a plant cell under a low-power microscope, its protoplasmic jelly is easily discerned. But wait! A lens with higher resolving power can distinguish entities in that medium: some vacuoles, chloroplasts and a nucleus. Each of them has its own outline and distinguishing characteristics. Each therefore rates a name of its own. To be a thing is to be discernibly different. To be is to make a difference.

How sad is the plight of those people to whom no one pays any attention. Whether they are present or absent seems to make no difference. They are as nothing to all those who pass by. Children who are ignored by parents or peers may do outrageous things to attract some attention. How else can they demonstrate that they actually exist?

Maybe I like to think about my family, my boat, my walls and my excavation because they convince me that I have made some difference to the world. I’m sure that in many parts of the world there are people to whom my life’s work has made some kind of difference—in a worthwhile direction, I hope. Scientists dream of making some important discovery by which their names will be remembered. Some of us write books hoping that our private thoughts and experience of the world will make some public difference. Thus we shall “make a name” for ourselves.

The impression of permanence

If the actual world is continually changing, why is it that we nevertheless feel that some things are permanent? Mostly because some transformations proceed so very slowly. Rocks last a long time, but water quickly takes on new forms. Ancient architectural ruins and battered old statues remind us that even stones are not immune to erosion and other kinds of destruction. Museums are intended to preserve significant items from the ravages of change. For some time they may succeed in this aim. But what has happened to all those things that were likewise stored so “safely” in the museums of long-lost civilizations?

Scientists earnestly try to protect their experiments from undesirable interference. If all sorts of influences are allowed to introduce uncontrolled, random differences into a carefully simplified situation, the whole experiment becomes too complex to unscramble. To prevent such unauthorized interference the scientist will often encase an experiment in sealed vessels, or otherwise arrange to secure isolation. No experiment, however, can be entirely isolated from the influence of gravitation and miscellaneous radiation that tunnels in. The very container that isolates, the measuring instruments and the experimenter cannot easily be avoided. Modern scientists know that absolutely complete isolation is impossible. Some outside interference is inevitable and constant. It can only be minimized or neglected. Since all experiments are subject to certain differences that arise from varying conditions, science must rely on a statistical approach.

Statistics, as we all know, can conceal a wide spread of individual differences. The average height of the people in a certain house may be less than four feet. The baby may be sixteen inches long but the father may be seven feet tall.

Language contributes a great deal to the common illusion of permanence in the world around us. Our definitions, each the basis of a name or word, are usually so general that they include a great range of kinds and conditions of particular things. The name “car” is given to a weighty vehicle moved on four wheels. “Car” may therefore refer to a horse-drawn ceremonial carriage, to a railway car, or to an automobile. How many kinds of each are there, with how many detailed variations? The general name “car” may be applied not only to a brand new passenger automobile rolling fresh off the assembly line, but also to a rusty old wreck upside down at the bottom of a gully. In how many interesting adventures can a car participate while it is deteriorating, until it suddenly acquires the honest new name of “scrap” or “junk”? The whole collection of important differences which have gone into the lifetime of that vehicle is utterly ignored and concealed under the single, simple word “car.” The word may not have changed, but each of its referents can certainly change dramatically in the course of a few years. Those who are mainly concerned with general words and definitions can easily lull themselves into a reassuring sense of permanence by simply ignoring the actual transformations and individual differences all around them.

If each part of a certain car were replaced with a new and identical part, would that car really be the same car when all its parts had been changed? As an organization, yes. As a particular structure, no.

The use of logical reasoning also contributes something towards the illusion of permanence. Logic works only with permanent definitions and with things taken as they were at some specific moment in the past and in that moment’s specific set of relationships. Because of the Law of Identity, the “motion picture” must be reduced to single-frame “snapshots” and considered logically one at a time.

Logic can deal with only certain kinds of things: those that change very slowly; those that occurred in the past; or ideas created by the mind, deliberately endowed from the beginning with the quality of changelessness. The world which we actually experience is incalculably fuller, livelier and more engaging than statistics, abstractions and arbitrary definitions. In the world around us forms are forever colliding with other forms, and interesting transformations are everywhere reshaping our worldscape.

Nevertheless the major intellectual systems of humankind have always directed attention toward “the things that never change.” God, truth, the laws of thought, the laws of nature, the regularities and the samenesses that appear in our experience—these have always provided the basis for our traditional theologies, philosophies and sciences.


For several centuries during the Middle Ages in Europe, the most acute theoretical minds devoted an astonishing amount of ingenuity and effort to problems associated with “universals.” The word “John” refers to one particular man in a given context. The word “man” applies to a collection of all humans, all of whom are like John. Each man has the same set of general characteristics as all the others, including John. The list might be very long, but some of the words that normally apply to men would be masculinity, humanity, tallness, strength and existence. The concepts these general words stand for are “universals.” Our language is larded with universals. Many of them end in “-ity,” “-ness,” “-tion,” “-th” and “-ence.” Nothing much can be said in our language without using at least one of these general ideas.

Ages ago, it was realized that the meaning of a universal word remains constant while the particular individual items to which that universal meaning applies are always changing. The idea of humanity has always been the same while the generations of human beings have been coming and going, the children being born, growing up, living their lives, then dying off and leaving their families.

Why do orangeness, roundness and heaviness remain unchanged, although all oranges except those of the current crop have either rotted away or been eaten? Why do the eternal principles of triangularity apply to all actual triangles, even though no actual triangle is an absolutely perfect specimen?

Plato’s explanation was that the forms which give characteristic identity to particular things in this transient world are only imperfect copies of perfect universal forms, the “eternal Ideas.” These archetypes dwell in a changeless world known only by the intellect. According to his view, any particular triangle derives its properties from perfect triangularity, which abides in a supernal world along with perfect squareness, perfect circularity, true humanity, ideal beauty and the like. The scheme which fits all these universals together into perfect harmony, Plato called “the Form of the Good.” This ideal arrangement provides the exemplary pattern according to which a perfectly just society could be organized. In it all persons would take and keep their proper place according to their birth status and their inborn “nature.”

Aristotle, on the other hand, claimed that universals do not abide in some realm entirely apart from the things and processes of this transient world. The universals are actually found in earthly things, giving them their “essential natures.” Without these “essences” they would not be what they are. The universals function as the “substantial forms” of things, underlying (hence: “sub-stance”) their more variable accidental qualities such as their particular color, scars or position. The indwelling universal “oakness” is what determines the development of an acorn into a mature oak tree. Fluidity, salinity and extension constitute the essence of the sea. Being gives things their existence. Thus universals are the inner substantial forms which make each thing what it characteristically is.

Although each universal has enough resemblance to every other universal so that all of that kind can be called by the same common name, “universal,” each nevertheless possesses a certain characteristic uniqueness. Ancient philosophy never divulges the secret of how each universal acquired its special uniqueness, that which differentiates it from every other universal. We do learn, however, why any frog is like any other frog, but at the same time is quite different from any snake or lizard. A frog has frogness. The others don’t.

To the modern mentality nothing seems less illuminating, less gripping or less exciting than explaining all things by means of universals. During the Middle Ages, however, reports of heated debates over the nature of universals were eagerly received and studied. Tense animosity existed between differing schools of thought. The views of a number of prominent thinkers were officially condemned. The authors of controversial works on universals were sometimes placed under ecclesiastical discipline. Some were even excommunicated. Others fled from their homelands in search of a regime that would be disposed more hospitably toward their opinions. In Europe for over four hundred years universals were a hot issue. Even today in some quarters they still are.

Why would a seemingly harmless explanatory topic generate such controversy? Because intellectual positions with respect to universals had very touchy political and theological implications. About what questions, about what problems did they argue? What implications of what positions were of such importance?

Does the human mind create universals, or simply discover them? Do universals have an independent type of existence in their own right, or does the existence of a universal depend upon some mind? Why do some universals fit together so nicely, while others like roundness and squareness are utterly incompatible in the same place at the same time?

These “innocent” academic questions contained high-powered explosive potential. To say that universals are created by the human mind, or that they have an independent existence in their own right, was tantamount to saying that human knowledge need not rely on divine illumination, and that a secular science could bypass the church and obtain true knowledge without benefit of clergy.

These implications had arisen from the process by which Plato’s philosophy was accommodated to and assimilated by Christians, making medieval Christianity what it was. The supernal realm in which Plato’s perfect universals dwelt could be easily identified with “heaven.” The universals fitted together in orderly harmony because they were conceived to be God’s basic plans, the ideal patterns he keeps in mind for things, persons and society. Plato’s “Form of the Good” was thus enshrined in the mind of God, the eternal abode of eternal universals. To say that universals have an independent existence, or that they depend only upon the minds of thinkers, would imply that the world is governed not by the sovereign mind and will of God, but by lesser uncoordinated powers. The church, which claimed to exercise God’s authority on earth and to know the mind of God, would then lose its exclusive right to prescribe the beliefs and behavior of individuals and society. If universals were believed to be independent, any godless, unchurched person could obtain as good access to reliable knowledge as could the wisest church authorities.

While Aristotle’s works were only rediscovered in the hands of the Arabs about the time of the Crusades, Plato’s philosophy dominated European minds for a thousand years in a number of adaptations. Plato’s universals were ranked in order from the highest, most general ideas, such as the pure being that sustains all other universals, down through wisdom, virtue and beauty, and through the distinctive geometrical forms and natural numbers, then through the general families and species of living creatures, right down to despised and formless matter. The higher the ranking of a universal, the more potent its ability to dominate and the more widespread its application.

In the Middle Ages, therefore, an emperor or a pope must be assumed to embody great wisdom, virtue and beauty, which the lower officials shared to lesser degrees. The ranking of essences according to value gave everyone and everything in human society and the world a specified place and importance. The resulting divinely ordained social organization positioned everyone at a certain level in the feudal system. The authority of officials was sanctified by this “eternal ordering”—one that was not derived from their record of personal performance. Popes, prelates, priests and parishioners on the one hand, and the absolute monarch, with descending ranks of nobility, masters and serfs and slaves—all were established in their positions by “divine predestination,” and all were expected to keep their places.

Under these circumstances, to suggest that universals were only devices invented by human minds in order to get a handle on a multitude of particular things, would have threatened the whole established class structure of medieval Christendom. If people ceased to believe that universals were divinely ordained, substantial forms, the officials would have been divested of the “God-givenness” of their rights and privileges. Henceforth they would rule only by reason of their personal physical power or by the consent of those whom they ruled. For the official medieval mind, democracy would have been the ultimate disaster. If people came to believe that the universals have been merely created by human minds, social chaos would undoubtedly follow.

The great dualism which separated the realm of the transcendent universals from the imperfect material world was important to maintain. If the divine mind had ranked all things in descending order from God, through spiritual things, to humans, animals, plants and inorganic matter, that ranking confirmed the divine mandate given to humans in the book of Genesis: to have dominion over the inferior beasts, to cut down forests, till the earth and dig mines. Pre-Platonic, pre-Christian tribes had treated the animals and plants with great care. They feared the wrath of the spirits that resided in living things and presided over the various species. Christianity largely abolished belief in those protective spirits and left creatures unprotected. The Platonic-Christian gradation of universals therefore also came to designate who might exploit what or whom with divine approval.

In the interests of maintaining social control, it seemed necessary and realistic to keep all lower-class people down where they belonged. All humans were, of course, inferior to the perfection of God. God, however, had chosen some to rule over others, investing them with “special grace.”

The doctrine of “original sin” made it necessary for every child born into the world to be washed free from the taint of Adam’s “original sin” by the holy waters of baptism administered by the church. Forgiveness for sins occurring after baptism could be obtained only from other sacraments dispensed by the church’s priests. The faithful were condemned to be humble, if not humiliated. Pride and presumption were held to be the worst of the deadly sins. They predisposed people to disobey their betters, including the church authorities.

Only those who understand the nature of medieval universals can grasp how every child could be said to have been born with a corrupt “nature”—the doctrine of original sin. Adam’s sin corrupted all his descendants, because in his day Adam was the sole and entire embodiment of the universal “man.” When Adam sinned in Eden, that universal “nature” was also sadly corrupted. This “fallen” nature was all there was with which to constitute the essence of every other human being. All people who sprang from the loins of Adam, therefore, received from him that corrupted “nature.” Thus all humans from the day of their birth have been endowed with original sin.

In Jesus Christ, however, the “divine nature” entered into combination with a second version of “man”—a newly constituted and sinless “human nature” which was in fact a unique and special new “universal”—a second Adam. An infusion of this perfect, uncorrupted nature could be obtained from the church’s sacraments. One’s personal salvation would be thereby guaranteed. It was believed that Christ had given the church’s priests the power and authority to direct that saving, cleansing universal into common bread, turning it thus into the bread of life, to cleanse and nourish the spirits of its penitent recipients. Not to receive the sacraments meant certain damnation. No wonder the church authorities wielded great power over their people.

Christ’s incarnation, or the enfleshment of the divine, presented peculiar difficulty since it appeared to set aside the great gulf fixed between the divine creator and all earthly creatures. How could the universal “divinity” combine with the universal “humanity”? These two were especially incompatible because the original humanity had been so hopelessly corrupted. Since original sin was supposed to be passed on to children by the sex act, it was important to know that Christ was born of a virgin who had also been born, it was claimed, of a virgin mother—the Immaculate Conception. Somehow that neat arrangement was held to guarantee that the sinful propensities of corrupted human nature were bypassed and not imparted to Christ. What such a doctrine implied about the humanity of women is, of course, another question.

This whole interwoven fabric of doctrines and the social order depended upon belief in the substantiality of universals. To tamper with the status of universals was, therefore, literally, to play with fire. Everyone’s hope for salvation from hell was at issue. Many a condemned heretic died in fire at the earthly stake.

The centuries of debates over universals appear trivial to moderns since they seemingly dealt with up-in-the-air philosophy. The heat of those arguments, however, was generated by very real struggles for social, political and economic power. The Reformation was largely a debate over the saving efficacy of church-controlled, incarnated universals. In the reshuffling of dogmas by Protestants, however, only superficial theological changes were actually made. These changes tended to justify certain shifts in social, political and economic power. The basic widespread acceptance of universals as valid explanatory principles remained largely unchanged.

Beliefs about “the nature and attributes” of God were, like everything else, tied up with beliefs about universals. The doctrine that God is one in three and three in one—the Holy Trinity—was undoubtedly incomprehensible to anyone who lacked a good understanding of universals as substantial forms. If the nature of God diversifies into three “persons,” they would ask, why doesn’t that mean that there are actually three separate gods? When any other universals diversify, they thereby generate a number of separate, individual things. Why not divinity? Apparently one of the properties that make the divine nature divine is that it happens to be the exception to this rule. The church maintained that in diversifying, the divinity of each person in the Godhead is in no way diminished or split apart from the other two.

When this conception of the Holy Trinity is set beside the belief that God’s mind could diversify into the whole multitude of unique and separate universal essences, a number of problems and dilemmas appeared. If God’s mind did diversify, how could it remain one and changeless? This problem was overcome by inventing the concept of an “eternal act.” In any other context this would be immediately considered a contradiction in terms.

Furthermore, if the universals which proceed from God’s mind constitute the nature of every creature upon earth, would not the nature of every creature become and remain unalterably divine? Even Adam’s original nature? If after the diversification of God’s substance the three distinguishable persons of the Godhead still retain all of their divinity, why do all the earthly things which also issue from the divine nature not also retain the basic divinity of their origin? If they do, then why do humans need those extra, specially arranged infusions of divinity before they can participate in the divine and receive salvation? The ministrations of the church would be unnecessary.

Thus the very interpretation of universals which was invoked to justify the doctrine of the Holy Trinity could lead to pantheism—the belief that all things are divine. But if pantheism were permitted or approved, people would no longer seek saving help from the church. Indeed any individual whatsoever could begin to claim that he or she possessed a mystical knowledge of God, an inner light from the essential spark of the divine which should reside in every creature. An unrestrained chaos of individual opinions could break loose. The peace, order and authority of church and state would disintegrate. A horrible dilemma: to give up either the Holy Trinity or churchly control over people’s minds! The final decision has never been made.

No end of embarrassing questions have been asked about these universals—the kinds of sameness.

If the true forms of all things dwell in heaven, will we find there the universal forms of hair, mud, excrement, disease and all manner of sins and evil?

If two cows equally possess “cowness,” what other forms do they possess which account for the fact that they are two differing individual cows? Is there a separate and unique form which makes each unique, individual person different from every other person? If, in addition to all the universal forms that constitute the essences of everything and every person, there is also a unique and special form for every particular individual, and for every detail of every individual, then there must be many more universal forms than there are things in the world. Putting forward universals to explain why things are as they are, therefore, is offering an explanation that is more complicated and more incomprehensible than the things themselves that are being “explained.”

How does the human mind come to know the universals? Are they remembered from some previous heavenly existence? Do they all participate latently to some degree in every existing human being? Are they imparted by divine illumination? How can one particular mind be informed at the same time by a multitude of universals? Are the universals which are known by the human mind the same universals that God knows? Can a person change the location of universals at will? If I think about person A as compared with a shorter person B, I can see that A certainly possesses tallness. But compared with a taller person C, person A also possesses shortness. The substantial form of person A therefore apparently combines both tallness and shortness at the same time. Isn’t that a contradiction? Does switching my attention from B to C manipulate these universals so that they enter or depart from A as I change my mind?

We could go on and on listing the kinds of difficult questions which have been asked about the “samenesses” or universals upon which traditional Western philosophies, sciences and theologies were founded. Playing with universals may nowadays seem to many to be only an amusing intellectual and linguistic pastime. But remember that the time-honored “great words” still provide emotion-stirring filler for political orations. Even today they are standard fare in theological halls and science classrooms. As long as eminent people who are supposed to know what they are talking about continue to use these abstract universal words, some serious, sincere but hapless loser of a student will inevitably begin research into their meaning. The same old questions will be raised once more, discovered to be fruitless, and ultimately abandoned. Meanwhile our social authorities will rant on and on using those same old terms.

Difference is positive

A useful understanding of the world cannot be obtained from the contemplation of “samenesses” alone. When the pace of change is too fast to keep up with, people undoubtedly like to feel they are surrounded by “samenesses.” In the midst of turmoil what is the same somehow feels familiar, unthreatening, friendly, constant, tried and true. What is “the same” ordinarily generates positive feelings—unless you get too much of it for too long, or it was undesirable in the first place.

To be different means to be not the same. Since most people consider sameness to have positive meaning, they think that difference must accordingly be entirely negative.

Yet everyone will readily agree that what is the same is not different. If “different” (i.e., not the same) is already negative, then what is “not different” (i.e., the same) must be not not different—a double negative. We always consider that double negatives are positive, as when two negative numbers are multiplied together. It thus appears that the positivity which we ascribe to “the same” is derived from its actual double negativity!

The quantities on one side of an equation are asserted to be equivalent to those on the other side. There is “no difference” between them. Their “positive” equivalence is here seen clearly to have only the positivity of a double negative.

Everyone will agree that “uncertainty” in a communicated message is a negative quality. Specialists in information theory claim that information “reduces uncertainty.” Reduction however is also negative. The positivity of information therefore results from a double negation.

Something similar appears when we look at the way we use the “slash”—the logical divider. Every form which we know or recognize derives its boundaries from an application of the logical divider as we separate each This from all That. Although the logical divider is considered to be a positive intellectual tool, it functions purely negatively—it separates and then eliminates part of the field in view. What is positive appears only after this logical blade has done its work as cleaver and bulldozer. The positive is a late by-product of negation. The positive is a sort of remainder that is achieved only by successive negating operations.

Everything that is positive is therefore surrounded by a cloud of negative implications. Its full definition must include a long list of what it is not (its differentia). In fact any single positive thing is NOT the whole of the rest of the universe. Positive knowledge is always accompanied by an inevitable retinue of negatives. Positive and negative are as inseparably tied together as the north and south poles of a magnet. For one to exist the other must also exist.

In order to possess an adequate view of the world we must find a concept in which positive and negative are held to be of equal rank. This desirable feature is inherent in the concept of “difference,” which is both positive and negative at the same time. Without a different background, a positive figure, being undifferentiated, cannot be discerned. No act of rational thought is possible if it does not make or observe a difference. We can gain no knowledge of any actual thing that makes no difference to us. No information can be transmitted by streams of signals that are indistinguishable from each other. A “bit” of information is a minimum of difference and it too is both negative and positive. If the differentials of advantage, (e.g., of pressure, temperature, momentum, leverage, etc.) did not combine both the positive and the negative, these sources of all motion and change then would be insignificant and powerless. The physical world would then remain dead-still, and there would be no one to know that it was so.

The universal forms of samenesses are really only the kinds of differences. A kind (or class) is an ideal collection of those things that differ in the same ways from the same things. What is the same as something else is simply at the zero point of differing from it. To be maximally and entirely the same is to be and to remain identical through time. To be and remain the same is to be unchanging, unchangeable and unchanged. That state condemns something to be ineffective, insignificant, unable either to give or to receive, to learn or to appreciate. Only differences can make a difference. Differences can be made only to the changeable by the changing. All else is unknown, unknowing—as dead and negligible as nothing at all.

If classical theologians overemphasize the absolute changelessness of God, they are really saying that God is dead, that he can neither make any difference to us, nor we to him.

According to the Bible, however, the active creator of this changeful world has apparently determined to “make all things new.”1 The world is ever being replenished with new things, changing forms, novel inventions, ingenious improvisations. The universe is a torrent of differences. Each new leaf, each snowflake, each person, each place and each moment of time, is somehow different from any other. How could we ever have expected to understand the actual world by universal forms of sameness? To make sense of things we must give our primary attention to the world’s differences.


If our minds are forever preoccupied with the universal forms of eternal sameness, we are concentrating on a world which is quite different from the one in which we are presently living. The doctrine of universals has always appealed to otherworldly people, who long for a world where nothing changes, where nothing threatens, where all is completely familiar. According to some interpreters, this frame of mind is a longing for “heaven” and “God.” By others it is regarded as sheer “escapism,” “irresponsibility,” the “death wish,” or perhaps the veneration of the political, economic and social status quo.

Because otherworldly people desire to turn away from the actual world with its imperfections, alterations, exceptions, “evils” and stubborn facts, they feel guilty and embarrassed because they perceive that they are so inescapably part of this world-full of differences. Again and again they must come down to earth in order to satisfy their recurring physical needs. Attempts to deny our participation in the world of teeming differences may result in either emotional distress or callous hypocrisy.

Any system of thought which calls itself Christian, yet encourages its devotees to “forsake the world,” must deny the historical presence of Jesus in this world and ignore his concern for this world and for every creature within it. Jesus claimed that God knows each sparrow that falls and has a number for every hair.2 He clothes with beauty each lily of the field.3 Jesus treated each person as a special individual, rather than as merely “another sinner.”

Some of Jesus’ followers undoubtedly used the “universal” sameness-terms so characteristic of Greco-Roman parlance. It seemed meaningful in that context to say that “Faith does this,” “Sin does that” and “Death undoes everything.” Jesus himself, however, characteristically told concrete stories involving particular and differing individuals. “A certain man had two sons. . . .” His parables were down-to-earth, even when they dealt with the “afterlife.” He characteristically used active verbs and his stories were full of changes and events that made significant differences.

From his followers Jesus required a radical change of mind, a repentance involving redirection and initiating growth. The only world he expected his followers to forsake was an exclusive concern for their own private welfare. Having turned from their self-centered interests, Jesus expected them to follow him in his concern for God’s world, for the neglected, the despised, the oppressed, the suffering, the poor—all of whom were ordinarily excluded from the care of the social authorities. The people in power did not oppose Jesus because he was so otherworldly. They did so largely because he was so concerned about the well-being of those who were “different” in their realm. He asserted God’s love for those “others” and “outsiders” as well as for the highly placed and respected ones. He did not sanctify the existing social arrangements, nor did he tolerate them without incisive criticism and exhortation.

Wherever throughout the world the attitude of Jesus has gone, a continuing social revolution has followed. He is still being opposed where power means privilege and where differing means being worthless, an outcast or a victim.

The powers that be are perennially and intensely interested in supporting the ideals of eternal changelessness and otherworldliness, for social change might deprive them of their privileged places in the status quo.

Jesus can never be accused of trying to divide people, by creating and maintaining differences. Making distinctions was the lawyers’ job, not his. Jesus aimed to reconcile differences, binding all humans together in mutual respect and mutual supplementation. He envisaged a love great enough to unite all different things, all different persons and all different peoples in a new heaven and a new earth.

To this end, a dynamic view of the world is required—one which recognizes and expects change and developmental transformation. By virtue of their very differences, each person or thing is able to contribute something unique and valuable toward the fullest well-being of all. My fond hope is that the worldview so briefly sketched out in this book may contribute something to the ongoing change-process which is already moving in that direction.

This book is undoubtedly different. I hope that something in it may make a constructive difference in the form of God’s world.


1. Revelation 21:5.
2. Matthew 10:29-30.
3. Luke 12:27.