PART TWO – ANSWERS ON THE WAY Chapter 9. The Inkbottle

The last day of our journey was a bit of a blur. After the hot, semiarid plateau beyond Spokane, Washington, the lush, irrigated fruit-growing valley around Wenatchee was a welcome relief. Through the coastal mountains all the vegetation was fresh and green. The trees were so tall. Long, long, lacy fronds hung down from the branches of the great cedars. The scenic coastal road going north became very spectacular, running between steep mountains and the sea. That was salt water out there at last.

When we crossed the Canadian border, the customs man glanced into our fully packed car, shook his head and waved us on. In the United States we had gained experiences we would never forget. But we didn’t really belong there. We had been only visitors passing through. Once across the border, we felt we belonged. We found we were deeply Canadians at heart. We noticed a stand of flags: the Stars and Stripes was there, but it was good to see the Union Jack and the Red Ensign. One flag in the stand was completely strange to us. It had a Union Jack across the top, then waves and the setting sun. We learned that British Columbia had its own provincial flag. We would come to learn that the province which lies west of the West also has a character all its own.

Soon we crossed the Fraser River and followed its north bank out to the University of British Columbia at the tip of Point Grey, the westernmost edge of Vancouver. High on sandy cliffs overlooking the sea with its islands and inlets, the setting of that campus is unrivaled anywhere in the world. Vancouver is a beautiful city. Its people are proud of the majestic mountain backdrop which rises above Burrard Inlet to the north. The Gulf of Georgia shines like gold in the western sunset. Sometimes Vancouver’s citizens talk as if they themselves had installed the glorious features of their landscape.

We went directly to St. Andrew’s Hall, the new church-sponsored men’s residence of which I was to be the first dean. The buildings were almost ready for occupancy. Only a few floors yet to be tiled, a little painting still to be done, and we could begin to set up the furnishings for the first crop of students. The mattresses, still in their wrappings, were piled high in the lounge-to-be. The peppery little judge who had headed up the whole project was there to welcome us. He showed us around and then led the way over to our new home.

We were pleased with the house, its lawns and garden space. Behind the white picket fence at the back was a woods where the children could roam. Our moving van had already arrived and unloaded. Our possessions in boxes and barrels and cartons were all there somewhere in the big house. Dawn immediately sat down at the piano and played one of her pieces. In the living room every sound seemed too loud and hollow. The rooms looked so . . . so naked, without curtains or pictures on the walls, without drapes or a rug.

When our tour of the house was over, the judge handed me the keys, shook our hands very sincerely, wished us well, put on his hat, walked out to his car and drove away.

We had arrived. We stood there silently among the stacks of cartons. This was the place we were to spend our foreseeable future. The journey west was over. Our next journey would be more through time than space—and we had no map to guide us.

The following day the judge took me to meet the president of the university. He and his staff were most friendly, offering me their cooperation and assistance. At that time the university was welcoming any support it could get for “spiritual values,” and it also sorely needed more and better housing for students. From there we went to meet the principals of the two theological colleges. They were gracious and helpful. I liked them. Their colleges worked closely together and, on paper, our Hall was someday to become another theological college.

A pair of good friends from back East, Herb and Elsie Carson, arrived just after we did. They became the backbone of our staff throughout the next eleven years. Because of their experience in the world of business and industry as well as the church, we made a good team for developing this new project.

One day during registration week the judge was at the Hall checking on how things were going. A freshman bounced in wearing a distinctive white and green initiation beanie. Woe betide him if any sophomore were to catch him hatless. The boy immediately came right over to where we were standing in the lounge. He told us his name and perkily asked when his room would be ready. The dapper judge always wore a hat himself and was very conscious of etiquette pertaining to hats. Before I could answer the lad, the judge bellowed at him like a drill sergeant, “TAKE OFF YOUR HAT TO THE DEAN!” That eager young flower suddenly drooped in the withering blast—and so did I. Despite the unusual introduction, that student and I later became the best of friends.

The abidingly serious aspect of the incident lay in the fact that many decisions had to be made about our role and stance in the residence. The students had to know what was expected from them and what they could expect from our staff and from myself. Since everybody in residence came from a different home background, and since anywhere in B.C. is close to the full freedom of forest and mountain, generating a genuine sense of community in the Hall would take some effort.

At the same time we had to develop our relations with the church courts of our own denomination, with the theological colleges and with the university. The presbytery had established a student congregation which would worship in the chapel on Sundays, relating me to the presbytery. The synod appointed me chaplain to the Presbyterians at UBC. This appointment was a first, both in the denomination and in the university. As an actual chaplain, I could share my experience with the General Assembly’s planning committee on the Church and the University. Since the Hall was expected to move towards becoming a theological college, I was treated by the university as if I were already the principal of a college, and found myself invited to high-level functions. These connections opened opportunities for me to meet the university’s administrators and teachers. There were transdenominational student religious clubs on campus. Should I establish a new one?

So many relationships! So many possibilities! So many decisions to be made! Our new institution had no duplicate on this continent. Not much guidance was available as we set our course for the future. A theological college with no formal classes; a professor to whom no student was obligated to listen; a chaplain in the university but not of the university; a minister to a procession of students—my whole situation was riddled with ambiguities. No occupational definitions or job descriptions would ever fit my case. How does one become a friend and counselor of students if one is identified with the functions of parent, teacher, policeman and preacher?—all of them authority figures against whom the young people of those times were rebelling. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” was the slogan—and I was!

Under these circumstances, establishing policies, procedures and relationships was a little like building a causeway across a body of water. You just keep dumping great loads of stone ahead of you. When enough of them stay above water for long enough, you move onto them, and unload some more stones. You use what you have already built to go on building. The shape of things develops as you go ahead and the construction grows.

Possible difficulties

When I wrote to the folks back East, the most positive thing I could say was that my situation was “all possibilities.” That was like saying that the rest of the manuscript of this book is still in the inkbottle!

When a philosopher doesn’t quite know what the next move ought to be, it is always permissible to reflect on the situation. Mine, as I’ve said, was all “possibilities.” Now what in the world are possibilities? An “actuality” has some specific characteristics. But possibilities? People say they all lie “somewhere in the future,” wherever that is. They don’t actually exist yet. Possibilities are all packed into some secret hidey-hole along with all the inventions that haven’t yet been made, the thoughts no one has ever expressed, and the deeds that have never been done.

God may have thought up all sorts of possible worlds but said “Not at this time” to all of them, save this one in which we actually live. These possible worlds, desirable or undesirable, all lie there in the back of his memory, awaiting the occasion when they may be activated, inflated into actuality by a breath of his creative energy—or ours.

Reflecting playfully, I wondered how you can tell one possibility from another. Sometime this morning the easy chair in my office may become a seat for some student. This “possible student” may be a man or a woman. Can I tell a possible man from a possible woman? A possible blonde from a possible brunette or redhead? Is one possible student distinguishable from all possible students? If a possible man can sit in my chair, can a possible woman sit there at the same time? It’s possible! Could a hundred possible students sit there? How many possible students are there anyway? I don’t hear many answers!

These lighthearted questions about possibilities may seem trivial, but they are very like the serious kinds of questions that must be asked by someone who is trying to plan a future or to create some kind of organization. Before a certain possible organization has been set up in actuality, you have to consider alternative possible organizations. How can you tell in advance which possible form of organization will work out best for your circumstances? Do you know all the circumstances and the possible problems you’ll have to face? How do you decide between all the possibilities? Even if you have chosen the “best” possible organization to set up, will it actually work in the best possible way?

Logic gets into trouble trying to deal with any actual organization. It’s easy to see the people, the machines, the building and the facilities, but who can see the connections between all these? Lines of authority, responsibility and communication are quite invisible. What cannot be seen is not easy to conceive, define or divide.

Logic has even more trouble trying to deal with a possible organization. A possible organization cannot become an actual organization without some drastic change in its identity. When a well-planned organization actually begins to function, it won’t likely work out quite the way its designers had hoped. That fact provides jobs for managers. What has been worked out on paper and what actually happens are two different things. The Law of Identity applies only where things remain the same. Through the years organizations never remain entirely the same.

The Law of Disjunction would insist that a possible organization must either exist or not exist. If it exists, where is it? If it does not exist, how can we talk about it? Since we do talk about a possible organization, it must have some kind of existence, even though it doesn’t actually exist yet. The Law of Disjunction won’t work well in that case, and since the Law of Noncontradiction would forbid a situation where something both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time, that law is also in trouble trying to handle a possible organization.

Despite the problems it creates for traditional logic, the word “possible” has been around for a long time. It seems to have had a fairly useful career. It belongs to an ancient and honorable family whose members include “can,” “may,” “if,” “perhaps,” “presume,” “suppose,” “potentiality,” “permissible,” “imaginable,” “attainable,” “realizable,” and an indeterminate assortment of other words ending in “-able” and “-ible.”

Since for every single thing that has actually existed, many other possible things did not come into existence, the population of the world of the possible has always been numerically greater than that in the world of the actual. If logic functions properly only with the definite and the definable actual world, then its sphere of usefulness appears to be severely limited.

No logician, however, would say that logic deals with the actual world. That’s up to the carpenters, mechanics, gardeners and garbage collectors. A logician deals only with statements that people make and hold to be true or not true. The logician simply says, “IF you believe that this statement is true, and IF you agree that this other statement is true, then you must agree that such-and-such another statement is true and that its opposite is false.” The logician never says anything whatsoever about the actual world. The logician deals only with people’s words and definitions according to the laws of thought.

Every actual statement anyone makes is turned into a statement beginning with IF. The logician is therefore interested in statements that are possibly true. Logicians accordingly ought to be able to tell us a great deal about the world of the possible. But in fact they tell us nothing about the possible world except which possible statements would be compatible according to the rules governing clear thinking. Deciding whether two possibly true statements fit together properly sounds even less weighty than twhe matter of whether or not two possible students can possibly sit in one chair.

Logicians nevertheless tend to believe that the laws which pertain in the actual world also pertain in the world of the possible. But strange illogical things occur quite regularly and believably in fictional tales that are set in amazing possible worlds. Stranger still and more unpredictable are some of the events that regularly and actually occur in the realms of biology and particle physics. Apparently logic does not deal adequately with either the “possible” world or the world of the actual.

I believe that if we could come to grips with the notion of a “possible” world, we’d have the solution to all our puzzles about imaginary lines, international boundaries, celestial birdcages, logical slashlines and the boundaries of logical classes. Our traditional, rational worldview, however, will not grant official recognition to this third kind of world which neither exists nor does not exist. To admit such a world into any semblance of citizenship would be to subvert the persuasive power and absolute authority of logical reasoning. It would open the frontiers of our neat and tidy rational country to a whole flood of undesirable aliens of uncertain ancestry, who would probably undermine all our settled rational institutions and threaten everything that right-thinking people hold dear. Heaven forfend! Deliver us from the “possibles”! They are undoubtedly somehow in cahoots with that world of nonbeing which is the abyss of death and destruction. But despite such objections, it seems logical to believe in that illogical third world of the possible: the mentacosm, with its neither-nor.

Like everyone else with a job to do, I set aside all these confusing questions for consideration some other day. Universities take pride in their rational approach to the world, so I didn’t air in public my doubts about the whole rational enterprise. Besides, I wasn’t yet sure of the grounds for my criticisms. In the meantime, life must go on. Let’s see now, where were we?

Actual possibilities

Oh yes. I was contemplating all sorts of possible organizations, possible approaches to my future work. I soon saw that my situation offered me only a few possible alternatives for doing things. Only a limited number of things could actually be done with that particular set of buildings. Nobody could expect me or my staff to do what our respective personalities, training and experience did not equip us to do. Nor could the students in residence be expected to be angels, embodiments of all wisdom and virtue. They were boys in their late teens and early twenties, growing up in difficult times. We could only encourage the development of their strengths and help them improve on their weaknesses.

The university had been there longer than we. Its administrators expected any new college to conform to certain general standards of dignity and excellence. The theological colleges for their part were proud to be accepted by the university and therefore would not want the Hall to jeopardize that valuable relationship. The presbytery had definite laws and rules concerning the organization and activities of new congregations. A board of the General Assembly was responsible for seeing that everything we did at the Hall conformed to Presbyterian administrative procedures.

As the dean, I was in a position similar to that of a telephone operator trying to get a transcontinental call through on Christmas Day. The call must go through several busy exchanges. A single switching station with no open lines could prevent any given call from getting through. If any telephone can be connected to a line through every exchange in the whole succession, all the way to a desired destination, the operator can put that call through. So when I considered ways to set things up at the Hall, I asked what particular lines of approach would be acceptable to our staff, our students, the board, the congregation, the presbytery, the theological colleges and the university. If the idea could get past all of these checkpoints, through all these filters, through all these switchboards, it could get final approval. The possible could then become actively actual. In advance I could only hope for a consensus, and do what seemed best as far as I could see.

Not all conceivable possibilities are actually possible. Many of our “possible dreams” are ruled out by the actual situation within which we have to function. Our environment—a specific set of influential presences and a lot of would-have-been-helpful absences—largely limits the scope of our freedom to choose. No doubt in ancient times some “silly” citizen of Rome imagined a horseless chariot as a way of escaping from the stench of the city. The absence }of an appropriate engine and fuel at that moment in history, however, prevented that dream from becoming an actuality. On the other hand, the availability of digging equipment, cement and stone offered an actual possibility of taking some of the stench away from the city through underground sewers. Today’s technical world offers several other solutions to the sewage problem—including solutions that may eventually make the problem worse.

Decisions! Decisions!

Deciding isn’t always easy—if you want to be “right,” beyond all doubting. Sometimes conditions that rule out certain alternatives don’t debar enough of them to leave you with a single rational choice. Power dams might be located at a number of sites along some great river. From an engineering point of view, each site has its pros and cons. If any of the possible dams is ever to be actually built, those who have the political power to do so must come down at last on one particular site—for practical reasons, or political reasons, or no specific reason other than to get some project going. Such decisions, arbitrary or otherwise, can affect many people’s lives and other decisions which will have to be made for the next hundreds of years. Judicial decisions in the courts provide legal precedents that guide judges from that time forth. The decision made by somebody in Canada and the United States to drive on the right-hand side of the road rather than on the left still affects the structure of motor vehicles and the construction of roads.

We are sometimes called upon to make landmark decisions. We must decide how to divide up our world—where we divide it is entirely up to us. Having made those crucial decisions, we have to live with them and their consequences. What if we’re wrong? People under the public eye, who make decisions that affect other lives and the course of events for years to come, work in an unenviable situation. It’s so easy to make mistakes. It is not possible to be right all the time—unless I am mistaken.

One of the great things about being a Christian is that you are free to accept your own fallibility. You can’t know everything before you make decisions, and you can’t entirely predict the effects of the decisions you make. Whatever you do, when you do something right, at the same time you do something wrong. If you construct something, you destroy something. If you choose to realize one possibility, you exclude others. When one company gets a contract, other companies are denied it. A life which is perfectly right from all points of view is not possible in this world. Whatever has been decided or done, valid criticism is always possible. When you have done your very best, you have to let it go at that. You expect to be wrong, and to have done wrong in some way to somebody somewhere.

The Christian faith proclaims that God offers forgiveness for sins. To be a Christian should mean release from overscrupulous anxiety about what has been done in good faith. It is not necessary to be uptight about it, or overeager to justify decisive actions. Christians believe that they have a certain freedom to live by the grace of God, who does not expect that they will achieve “perfection” in all their words and works. This belief offers real relief to the sincere but hard-pressed decision maker.

At the Hall we decided to aim at the atmosphere of a large family. The place would be “a Christian home away from home.” We’d clean up for a family-style dinner most evenings and begin the evening meal with a blessing. We’d offer family worship most nights after dinner. We wouldn’t emphasize rules of conduct except those dictated by caring, courtesy and common sense. We’d try to develop opportunities to stretch the spirits, minds and bodies of individuals, as well as the social consciousness of the group. The students would elect people to head up programs and facilitate a good life in the residence.

My role would be one of making opportunities and assistance available to students, encouraging them to make the best use they could of their years at university. The students themselves would maintain good order and bring offenders into line, with my wholehearted backing. If some problem arose with which the students found they couldn’t competently deal, on request I would make the final decision. They could always count on me to listen to their suggestions about how to improve our life together, and I expected that the student leaders would likewise be open to my suggestions.

So, one way or another, we got on with the job. As opportunities opened up, we did what we could according to the best light we could get. Some of our plans worked out really well. Others had to be modified or dropped. But we tried. We plugged in as many lines as we could so that messages could flow from everybody to everybody. We opened up channels for the water of life, hoping that someday it would pour in upon us in torrents of blessing. We made our facilities and resources available to every worthwhile Christian campus organization. We have been as useful as we knew how. God will make the final evaluation of what came out of the inkbottle.