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Physics displays an uncanny alignment at its very deepest levels. Is a grand theory of everything finally within reach?Scientists during the refurbishment of the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory, 1,000 metres below Mount Ikeno in Japan. Photo courtesy of Kamioka Observatory, Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, University of Tokyo
James Wells is professor of physics at the Leinweber Center for Theoretical Physics, University of Michigan. He is the author of Effective Theories in Physics: From Planetary Orbits to Elementary Particle Masses (2012) and Discovery Beyond the Standard Model of Elementary Particle Physics (2020).
Edited by Sally Davies
28 May 2021 (aeon.co)
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When trying to explain what motivates me as a physicist, the film A Passage to India (1984) comes to mind. Based on the play by Santha Rama Rau, adapted from the novel by E M Forster, it describes the fallout from a rape case in the fictional city of Chandrapore, during the British Raj in India in the 1920s. What keeps the viewer’s attention is the subtlety of the relationships between the characters – particularly the fragile friendship between the man accused of the rape, Dr Aziz, and an Englishman, Mr Fielding. Data about identity alone, such as race, class, gender or educational status, can never reveal these dynamics nor capture why they fascinate us. When the case arrives in court, ostensibly similar people behave very differently in relation to the defendant. The dynamics of individual behaviour trump any immutable labels we might apply; yet these static labels also impose constraints on just how far any individual can go. We watch, we theorise, and we update our knowledge of the characters and the forces at work. By the end, we find that Fielding and Aziz are more alike than we’d thought, having created a new bond on the basis of a more complete understanding of one another.
The curiosity that drives many particle physicists isn’t so different from what keeps us watching A Passage to India. The obvious and immutable data about the identity of elementary particles include their spins, their electric charges and their masses. From muons to charms, we can learn such information pretty quickly. But it takes years, even lifetimes, to reveal both the nature and degree of their relationships. The neutrino, for example, was introduced in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli, who needed to account for the fact that energy was conserved when a nucleus broke apart. But he would never have guessed how deep the relationship is between a left-handed spinning electron and the neutrino. It took more than 40 years of careful observations and ingenious theoretical work to reveal the deeper unified relationship they have together: via the fundamental force we now know as the ‘weak force’. That’s where the deepest and most satisfying learning in particle physics is to be found: through painstaking observations and the sifting of evidence comes a creative willingness to allow for multiple possibilities.
With the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, every elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model of physics has now been found. Yet the field is far from ‘done’. Among the continuing work, physicists are still looking for a grand unified theory that explains the forces that operate at the subatomic level – a common understanding that accounts for the disparate phenomena we observe among the particles we have in hand. Not everyone agrees that this is worthwhile or even possible; some think we finished learning new things about elementary particles in 2012, and we must accept the cacophony of unrelated details in our physics tables. But I believe that to understand nature at its foundations, it’s necessary to push further, to unearth more subtle and surprising relationships beneath the surface of what we see. Our observations to date support the idea that a unified theory of subatomic forces can be achieved. If true, it would revolutionise our understanding of nature far beyond any discovery of particle physics in the past half century – akin to theological transitions from polytheistic religion (many deities, many fundamental forces) to a monotheistic religion (one unified God, one unified force).
Unification revelations – ‘they are more like each other than we thought’ – have been remarkably productive throughout science. We now know that nature is often simpler and more cohesive than it seems. For most of human history, our theories for why planets move was disconnected from beliefs about why boulders tumble down mountains and apples fall off trees. But in 1687, Isaac Newton revealed that gravity offered a single, unifying explanation. All the explanations that had one ‘force’ for planets wandering in the sky, and another for apples being pulled to the ground, were brought together in one economical framework.
Other odd forces revealed themselves to us, but good explanations were slow to arrive. Between his duties attending to the medical needs of Queen Elizabeth I and her court, the physician and physicist William Gilbert wrote his magnum opus De Magnete at the start of the 17th century on the forces and attractions of electric charges that explained the workings of a compass. But the challenge of how to reconcile electrical charges with magnetic attraction and repulsion fascinated and confused natural philosophers for centuries thereafter. The crowning achievement came in 1861, when James Clerk Maxwell unveiled a set of equations that put electricity and magnetism on equal footing. The theory of electromagnetism showed that they were ‘more alike than you think’.
What led Einstein to general relativity were thoughts of unifying disparate objects
However, a conundrum remained in Newton’s theory of gravity and his laws of motion. The mass of a particle that’s used in equations to predict the particle’s acceleration when subject to any force (electromagnetic force, gravitational force, force due to a spring, etc) is mysteriously exactly the same mass that’s used in different equations to determine what gravitational force exists between the particle and some other body. The first kind of mass is called the ‘inertial mass’ and the second kind ‘gravitational mass’. Newton had to arbitrarily assume their exact equivalence to get the correct answers, even though there was no compelling reason why it had to be so.
However, Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity solved this mystery by theorising that there’s a single unified origin for both types of masses. Einstein recognised that the feeling of total weightlessness when you’re in freefall, even in the presence of gravity, is because of the equivalence of your inertial and gravitational masses. He elevated this observation to the principle of equivalence. In an acclaimed review article on relativity in 1907, he concluded that any new gravitational theory that included his new concepts had to conform with the principle of equivalence. It was this idea that ultimately helped him complete the formulation of the general theory of relativity in 1915.
What’s so interesting about the principle of equivalence, from our point of view, is that it could just as easily be called the principle of mass unification. What led Einstein to general relativity were thoughts of unifying disparate objects (these masses are ‘more alike than you think’), which in the old theory had no reason to be connected to each other. Newton unified planetary orbits and apple falls; Maxwell unified electricity and magnetism; and Einstein unified inertial mass and gravitational mass.
What new frontier can we identify in nature that calls out for deeper understanding of the relationships between particles – a new principle in the tradition of unifying planetary orbits with falling apples, electricity with magnetism, and inertial mass with gravitation? A good answer is a tighter relationship between elementary particles through the unification of certain forces that determine their interactions, known as the gauge forces. These three forces are electromagnetism, the weak force and the strong force.
With these three forces come many gauge bosons – a fancy way of describing the particles that are exchanged in order to activate the forces. There are a total of 12 such gauge bosons, or force carriers, in the Standard Model. There is one electromagnetic gauge boson (the photon) associated with the electromagnetic gauge force, three weak gauge bosons (W+, W-, Z) associated with the weak gauge force, and eight strong-force gauge bosons (the gluons) associated with the strong gauge force.
The electromagnetic force is mediated by photons, which get exchanged between particles that feel electric attractions and repulsions. The weak gauge force is what causes many particles to decay into others. For example, a neutron will spontaneously fall apart into three new particles: a proton, an electron and an antineutrino. We didn’t understand exactly how this decay could happen. After all, neither the neutron nor the neutrino have an electric charge, so they can’t talk to each other via photon exchange of the electromagnetic force. So if not via photons and electromagnetism, what force could enable the decay? We subsequently learned that something happened between the existence of the neutron and the appearance of the other three particles that explained the decay: a very brief, quantum mechanical, split-second existence of a W boson particle that’s exchanged between the particles, acting as a vehicle for the weak force. Just like the photon allows charged particles to interact with each other, the W boson allowed the proton, neutron, electron and neutrino to interact with each other, enabling the neutron to decay. Radioactive nuclear ‘beta decays’ proceed by the same weak-force exchange of W bosons. Meanwhile, the strong force is what keeps quarks together inside the proton and neutron.
Our observations to date push us in the direction of entertaining the existence of an Ur-theory of nature
Now, what if all three of the gauge forces were to be unified into a grand unified force – a single Ur-force? What would the observational consequences of such a reality be? For one, the relative charges of each particle under all three gauge forces would have to follow a very particular pattern consistent with what a grand unified force would require. Secondly, the strength of each of the three forces would need to converge to a unified strength as we go to higher energies. Third, there would be new particles beyond those we have already seen. And finally, there would be decays and interactions among known particles that are forced on us, even at low energies, by the grand unified theory.
Our observations to date push us in the direction of entertaining the existence of an Ur-theory of nature. Consider the fact that a left-handed electron has an electric charge of -1 under the electromagnetic force, a charge of 2 (a ‘spin charge’) under the weak gauge force, and a charge of 0 under the strong force. At the same time, the right-handed down quark has an electric charge of -1/3, a weak force charge of 0, and a strong force charge of 3 (a ‘3-dimensional unitary group charge’, though the mathematical details don’t need to be understood here). So, between these two particles, we have charges of 0, -1/3, -1, 2 and 3, etc for the different forces arranged in a particular manner. It’s a motley crew of jumbled-up numbers, which doesn’t seem to have much rhyme or reason to it. However, a school of mathematics known as group theory tells us that this is exactly the collection of charges that are needed to form a new grand unified particle: let’s call it P, which can be represented as P=(left-handed electron, left-handed neutrino, right-handed down quark).
Likewise, we can analyse more particles in the Standard Model, such as right-handed electrons, right-handed up quarks and left-handed up and down quarks. After many measurements, we find another set of willy-nilly values for the charges they display under all three gauge forces. But upon closer inspection using group theory mathematics, we find that those numbers also magically fit exactly into a single grand unified particle: W=(right-handed electron, left-handed down quark, right-handed and left-handed up quarks). It’s as though 10 very raggedy puzzle pieces scattered on the floor were pieced together to make a perfect circle.
It didn’t have to be this way. The charges of the elementary particles in our Universe could have been such that there was no way to unify any two or more of them into a single unified particle. It’s the combination of observational data and mathematics that offers us strong hints that the charges for elementary particles in the standard model aren’t arbitrary, but rather arise by virtue of being embedded into a grand unified theory framework.
There’s a second set of observational data hinting that the unification of the gauge forces is nature’s choice. This comes from measuring the strengths of the forces. When we measure the strength of the electromagnetic interaction and compare it with, say, the strong interaction, we get a very different answer. For particles colliding with energies about 100 times that of the proton mass, the weak-force interaction strength is aweak=0.033, which contrasts with a strong-force interaction strength of about astrong=0.118. We see that αaweak is much less than αastrong, which is hardly what we’d expect if the forces are unified. Rather, we’d normally think that they should be the same if they were truly ‘unified’.
The resolution of this conundrum is that the strength of the forces depends on the energy scale at which they are evaluated. That is, the forces should unify at the energy scale where the grand unified theory is valid, and not at lower energies where the grand unified force might spontaneously split itself into a multitude of other forces (electromagnetic, weak and strong forces). So the question isn’t whether the strength of the forces is all the same at some randomly chosen energy scale, but rather if there is any energy scale where the couplings correspond.
They could be cruel coincidences of nature that have led us astray
Fortunately, a set of techniques known as the renormalisation group flow of coupling strengths – first pioneered by Kenneth Wilson in the early 1970s – enable us to test the energies required for the unification of forces. First, we input the values of the force strengths measured at any scale, and then we ‘run the couplings’ using the mathematical methods to see if the couplings converge at some higher scale. Incredibly, we find that the strongest force (the strong force) decreases its strength between particles when the particles smash into each other at very high energies, while the weakest force (the hypercharge force, derived from electromagnetism) increases its strength. All three force strengths (hypercharge, weak, and strong) therefore come very close together, as a grand unification of forces requires, at an energy that is about 15 or 16 orders of magnitude (1015 or 1016) higher than a proton’s mass. Imagine three soccer players at different points on the field kicking their soccer balls and all three colliding at one point over midfield. You’d be forgiven for thinking they did it on purpose in an attempt to make a viral YouTube video. Analogously, many physicists don’t think it was an accident that all three force couplings converge at high energies, and therefore we have a very tantalising picture of grand unification of the forces – nature did it ‘on purpose’.
Again, it didn’t have to be like this. One of the force strengths could have moved away from the pack as we moved up the energy scale. This would have immediately made the project of grand unification look impossible or highly suspect. Furthermore, the scale of putative unification adds to the positive view of this picture. Its value is neither too low to run up against the problem of proton decay (to be discussed below), nor is it too high (1017 or higher) to collude with the inscrutable dynamics of strong gravity that spoils all calculations and interpretations. We see again that observational data (force strength measurements) and theoretical work (group theory and renormalisation group techniques) have led us toward grand unification.
Is there any way to obtain direct proof of unification? What I’ve described so far count as strong hints, but by no means are they proof. They could be cruel coincidences of nature that have led us astray. To obtain ‘proof for all practical purposes’ would require us to do experiments at the unification scale and observe the production of new particles and new interactions directly through collisions. For example, many grand unified theory ideas require the existence of an additional grand unified gauge boson that could be directly produced in collisions, seen, and measured. Unfortunately, it’s out of the question to build a high-energy collider that could reach the energies where we think the grand unified theory resides. It took us many decades to reach energies of only a few thousand times the proton mass – and it might never be the case that experiments could reach energies of 15 orders of magnitude higher, which is what it would take to convince the most ardent sceptics.
The search for a grand theory isn’t over, though. One of the most sought-after hints is the data connected to the search for proton decay. Along with the neutron, the proton makes up the nuclei within our bodies. If the proton were to decay quickly, it would disrupt our cells and give us cancer and we could never have reliable life. Fortunately, the proton lives a very long time: as far as we know, it lives for at least 1034 years. That’s about 24 orders of magnitude longer than the lifetime of the Universe. The prediction of grand unified theories for the lifetime of the proton generally falls in the range of 1030 to 1036 years.
Any theories that predict a proton lifetime of less than 1034 years can be ruled out. The simplest grand unified theory is sometimes called the Georgi-Glashow minimal SU(5) theory, proposed in 1974. In its infancy, researchers thought that it predicted the proton lifetime to be less than 1030 years. At the time, confidence was so high that proponents believed they would quickly observe proton decay in experiments. Instead, the result came back negative in 1983 from the IMB (Irvine-Michigan-Brookhaven) experiment. The lifetime of a proton had to be greater than 1031 years, which appeared to rule out the minimal Georgi-Glashow theory.
However, the computations that seemed so rigorous back in the early 1980s look like approximations on top of simplifications today. Taking into account high-scale quantum corrections leads to a perfectly acceptable grand unification with proton decay lifetime prediction greater than 1034 years. This means that proton decay remains a promising frontier in the search for a grand unified theory.
The story of nature is all the more woven with an infinite number of patterns, most as yet unseen
Two experiments are now being built that will increase our ability to find out if the proton decays at lifetimes even greater than the current limits. The DUNE experiment in the United States and the Hyper-Kamiokande experiment in Japan are both attempting to find evidence. These experiments involve filling vessels with 40 kilotons of liquid argon and 260 kilotons of ultrapure water, respectively, and surrounding them with detection equipment to see the tiny flashes of electricity or light that would be the telltale signs of a proton decaying in the midst of all that material. The two main modes of decay they’re looking for are the proton decaying to positron and pion particles (the standard decay that almost all grand unified theories predict) and the proton disintegrating into kaon and neutrino particles (which is particularly important for unification that incorporates an idea known as supersymmetry).
If there really is a grand unified theory that explains the Universe beyond the standard model, it’s likely we should see both or either of these decays. For example, proton decay relies on the fact that the up quark, down quark and positron can all join together in a unified way to convert two up quarks in the proton into an anti-down quark in the pion and a positron – all made possible by the exchange of a very heavy X gauge boson present in the grand unified gauge force. Also, Hyper-Kamiokande expects to be able to find evidence for the proton decaying this way if its lifetime is less than 1035 years. This is an order of magnitude more sensitive than current experiments, but it’s still unclear if it gives us enough to see actual decay. We should know in about 15 to 20 years, when the new generation of experiments, such as DUNE and Hyper-Kamiokande, have been built and have taken enough data to make a good test of the ideas.
It’s vital for us to find and catalogue the particles that serve as nature’s raw material. But if we stop there, we’re like impatient school children who merely read the Wikipedia synopsis of A Passage to India and then get on with writing their term papers. There’s so much more to learn and to synthesise about this complex narrative than the basic facts reveal. The story of nature is all the more woven with an infinite number of patterns, most as yet unseen. The subtle relationships between particles – the interactions between themselves in many different environments – is what lends our understanding its richness. The revelations of unification in science in general, and especially in physics, have been incredibly fruitful in the deepening of our knowledge and in lighting the way to future discoveries.
Among the many possibilities for unification, nature seems to have dropped us irresistible hints that our particles and our gauge forces are indeed unified into a grand unified theory of some kind. These hints are based on observational data along with the advanced theoretical tools of relativistic quantum field theory and group theory mathematics. However, the limitations of our technology have also made it extremely hard for us to get more direct proof. Seeing a proton decay is one of our few hopes for more direct corroboration – and that’s why so much effort is going into watching protons with an eagle eye to see if one disintegrates. Data will determine whether unified theories will continue to pay off as they have for so many centuries. If history is our guide, we have every reason to believe they will.
This story is about something called Radical Honesty. It may change your life. (But honestly, we don’t really care.)
By A.J. Jacobs Jul 24, 2007 (esquire.com)
Here’s the truth about why I’m writing this article:
I want to fulfill my contract with my boss. I want to avoid getting fired. I want all the attractive women I knew in high school and college to read it. I want them to be amazed and impressed and feel a vague regret over their decision not to have sex with me, and maybe if I get divorced or become a widower, I can have sex with them someday at a reunion. I want Hollywood to buy my article and turn it into a movie, even though they kind of already made the movie ten years ago with Jim Carrey.
I want to get congratulatory e-mails and job offers that I can politely decline. Or accept if they’re really good. Then get a generous counteroffer from my boss.
To be totally honest, I was sorry I mentioned this idea to my boss about three seconds after I opened my mouth. Because I knew the article would be a pain in the ass to pull off. Dammit. I should have let my colleague Tom Chiarella write it. But I didn’t want to seem lazy.
What I mentioned to my boss was this: a movement called Radical Honesty.
The movement was founded by a sixty-six-year-old Virginia-based psychotherapist named Brad Blanton. He says everybody would be happier if we just stopped lying. Tell the truth, all the time. This would be radical enough — a world without fibs — but Blanton goes further. He says we should toss out the filters between our brains and our mouths. If you think it, say it. Confess to your boss your secret plans to start your own company. If you’re having fantasies about your wife’s sister, Blanton says to tell your wife and tell her sister. It’s the only path to authentic relationships. It’s the only way to smash through modernity’s soul-deadening alienation. Oversharing? No such thing.
Yes. I know. One of the most idiotic ideas ever, right up there with Vanilla Coke and giving Phil Spector a gun permit. Deceit makes our world go round. Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.
Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse
And yet…maybe there’s something to it. Especially for me. I have a lying problem. Mine aren’t big lies. They aren’t lies like “I cannot recall that crucial meeting from two months ago, Senator.” Mine are little lies. White lies. Half-truths. The kind we all tell. But I tell dozens of them every day. “Yes, let’s definitely get together soon.” “I’d love to, but I have a touch of the stomach flu.” “No, we can’t buy a toy today — the toy store is closed.” It’s bad. Maybe a couple of weeks of truth-immersion therapy would do me good.
I e-mail Blanton to ask if I can come down to Virginia and get some pointers before embarking on my Radical Honesty experiment. He writes back: “I appreciate you for apparently having a real interest and hope you’re not just doing a cutesy little superficial dipshit job like most journalists.”
I’m already nervous. I better start off with a clean slate. I confess I lied to him in my first e-mail — that I haven’t ordered all his books on Amazon yet. I was just trying to impress upon him that I was serious about his work. He writes back: “Thanks for your honesty in attempting to guess what your manipulative and self-protective motive must have been.”
Blanton lives in a house he built himself, perched on a hill in the town of Stanley, Virginia, population 1,331. We’re sitting on white chairs in a room with enormous windows and a crackling fireplace. He’s swirling a glass of Maker’s Mark bourbon and water and telling me why it’s important to live with no lies.
“You’ll have really bad times, you’ll have really great times, but you’ll contribute to other people because you haven’t been dancing on eggshells your whole fucking life. It’s a better life.”
“Do you think it’s ever okay to lie?” I ask.
“I advocate never lying in personal relationships. But if you have Anne Frank in your attic and a Nazi knocks on the door, lie….I lie to any government official.” (Blanton’s politics are just this side of Noam Chomsky’s.) “I lie to the IRS. I always take more deductions than are justified. I lie in golf. And in poker.”
Blanton adjusts his crotch. I expected him to be a bully. Or maybe a new-age huckster with a bead necklace who sits cross-legged on the floor. He’s neither. He’s a former Texan with a big belly and a big laugh and a big voice. He’s got a bushy head of gray hair and a twang that makes his bye sound like bah. He calls himself “white trash with a Ph.D.” If you mixed DNA from Lyndon Johnson, Ken Kesey, and threw in the non-annoying parts of Dr. Phil, you might get Blanton.
He ran for Congress twice, with the novel promise that he’d be an honest politician. In 2004, he got a surprising 25 percent of the vote in his Virginia district as an independent. In 2006, the Democrats considered endorsing him but got skittish about his weeklong workshops, which involve a day of total nudity. They also weren’t crazy that he’s been married five times (currently to a Swedish flight attendant twenty-six years his junior). He ran again but withdrew when it became clear he was going to be crushed.
My interview with Blanton is unlike any other I’ve had in fifteen years as a journalist. Usually, there’s a fair amount of ass kissing and diplomacy. You approach the controversial stuff on tippy toes (the way Barbara Walters once asked Richard Gere about that terrible, terrible rumor). With Blanton, I can say anything that pops into my mind. In fact, it would be rude not to say it. I’d be insulting his life’s work. It’s my first taste of Radical Honesty, and it’s liberating, exhilarating.
When Blanton rambles on about President Bush, I say, “You know, I stopped listening about a minute ago.”
“Thanks for telling me,” he says.
I tell him, “You look older than you do in the author photo for your book,” and when he veers too far into therapyspeak, I say, “That just sounds like gobbledygook.”
“Thanks,” he replies.” Or, “That’s fine.”
Blanton has a temper — he threatened to “beat the shit” out of a newspaper editor during the campaign — but it hasn’t flared tonight. The closest he comes to attacking me is when he says I am self-indulgent and Esquire is pretentious. Both true.
Blanton pours himself another bourbon and water. He’s got a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, and when he spits into the fireplace, the flames crackle louder.
“My boss says you sound like a dick,” I say.
“Tell your boss he’s a dick,” he says.
“I’m glad you picked your nose just now,” I say. “Because it was funny and disgusting, and it’ll make a good detail for the article.”
“That’s fine. I’ll pick my ass in a minute.” Then he unleashes his deep Texan laugh: heh, heh, heh. (He also burps and farts throughout our conversation; he believes the one-cheek sneak is “a little deceitful.”)
No topic is off-limits. “I’ve slept with more than five hundred women and about a half dozen men,” he tells me. “I’ve had a whole bunch of threesomes” — one of which involved a hermaphrodite prostitute equipped with dual organs.
‘I’ve had a whole bunch of threesomes — one of which involved a hermaphrodite prostitute equipped with dual organs’
What about animals?
Blanton thinks for a minute. “I let my dog lick my dick once.”
If he hadn’t devoted his life to Radical Honesty, I’d say he was, to use his own phrase, as full of shit as a Christmas turkey. But I don’t think he is. I believe he’s telling the truth. Which is a startling thing for a journalist to confront. Generally, I’m devoting 30 percent of my mental energy to figuring out what a source is lying about or hiding from me. Another 20 percent goes into scheming about how to unearth that buried truth. No need for that today.
“I was disappointed when I visited your office,” I tell Blanton. (Earlier he had shown me a small, cluttered single-room office that serves as the Radical Honesty headquarters.) “I’m impressed by exteriors, so I would have been impressed by an office building in some city, not a room in Butt Fuck, Virginia. For my article, I want this to be a legitimate movement, not a fringe movement.”
“What about a legitimate fringe movement?” asks Blanton, who has, by this time, had three bourbons.
Blanton’s legitimate fringe movement is sizable but not huge. He’s sold 175,000 books in eleven languages and has twenty-five trainers assisting in workshops and running practice groups around the country.
Now, my editor thinks I’m overreaching here and trying too hard to justify this article’s existence, but I think society is speeding toward its own version of Radical Honesty. The truth of our lives is increasingly being exposed, both voluntarily (MySpace pages, transparent business transactions) and involuntarily. (See Gonzales and Google, or ask Alec Baldwin.) For better or worse, we may all soon be Brad Blantons. I need to be prepared. [Such bullshit. — Ed.]
I return to New York and immediately set about delaying my experiment. When you’re with Blanton, you think, Yes, I can do this! The truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. But when I get back to bosses and fragile friendships, I continue my lying ways.
“How’s Radical Honesty going?” my boss asks.
“It’s okay,” I lie. “A little slow.”
A couple of weeks later, I finally get some inspiration from my friend’s five-year-old daughter, Alison. We are in Central Park for a play date. Out of nowhere, Alison looks at me evenly and says, “Your teeth are yellow because you drink coffee all day.”
Damn. Now that’s some radical honesty for you. Maybe I should be more like a five-year-old. An hour later, she shows me her new pet bug — a beetle of some sort that she has in her cupped hands.
“It’s napping,” she whispers.
I nudge the insect with my finger. It doesn’t move. Should I play along? No. I should tell her the truth, like she told me about my teeth.
“It’s not napping.”
She looks confused.
Alison runs to her father, dismayed. “Daddy, he just said a bad word.”
I feel like an asshole. I frightened a five-year-old, probably out of revenge for an insult about my oral hygiene. I postpone again — for a few more weeks. And then my boss tells me he needs the article for the July issue.
I frightened a five-year-old, probably out of revenge for an insult about my oral hygiene
I start in again at dinner with my friend Brian. We are talking about his new living situation, and I decide to tell him the truth.
“You know, I forget your fiancée’s name.”
This is highly unacceptable — they’ve been together for years; I’ve met her several times.
In his book, Blanton talks about the thrill of total candor, the Space Mountain-worthy adrenaline rush you get from breaking taboos. As he writes, “You learn to like the excitement of mild, ongoing risk taking.” This I felt.
Luckily, Brian doesn’t seem too pissed. So I decide to push my luck. “Yes, that’s right. Jenny. Well, I resent you for not inviting me to you and Jenny’s wedding. I don’t want to go, since it’s in Vermont, but I wanted to be invited.”
“Well, I resent you for not being invited to your wedding.”
“You weren’t invited? Really? I thought I had.”
“Sorry, man. That was a mistake.”
A breakthrough! We are communicating! Blanton is right. Brian and I crushed some eggshells. We are not stoic, emotionless men. I’m enjoying this. A little bracing honesty can be a mood booster.
The next day, we get a visit from my wife’s dad and stepmom.
“Did you get the birthday gift I sent you?” asks her stepmom.
“Uh-huh,” I say.
She sent me a gift certificate to Saks Fifth Avenue.
“And? Did you like it?”
“Not really. I don’t like gift certificates. It’s like you’re giving me an errand to run.”
“Well, uh . . .”
Once again, I felt the thrill of inappropriate candor. And I felt something else, too. The paradoxical joy of being free from choice. I had no choice but to tell the truth. I didn’t have to rack my brain figuring out how to hedge it, spin it, massage it
I had no choice but to tell the truth. I didn’t have to rack my brain figuring out how to hedge it, spin it, massage it
“Just being honest,” I shrug. Nice touch, I decide; helps take the edge off. She’s got a thick skin. She’ll be okay. And I’ll tell you this: I’ll never get a damn gift certificate from her again.
I still tell plenty of lies every day, but by the end of the week I’ve slashed the total by at least 40 percent. Still, the giddiness is wearing off. A life of radical honesty is filled with a hundred confrontations every day. Small, but they’re relentless.
“Yes, I’ll come to your office, but I resent you for making me travel.”
“My boss said I should invite you to this meeting, although it wouldn’t have occurred to me to do so.”
“I have nothing else to say to you. I have run out of conversation.”
My wife tells me a story about switching operating systems on her computer. In the middle, I have to go help our son with something, then forget to come back.
“Do you want to hear the end of the story or not?” she asks.
“Well…is there a payoff?”
It would have been a lot easier to have kept my mouth closed and listened to her. It reminds me of an issue I raised with Blanton: Why make waves? “Ninety percent of the time I love my wife,” I told him. “And 10 percent of the time I hate her. Why should I hurt her feelings that 10 percent of the time? Why not just wait until that phase passes and I return to the true feeling, which is that I love her?”
Blanton’s response: “Because you’re a manipulative, lying son of a bitch.”
Okay, he’s right. It’s manipulative and patronizing to shut up and listen. But it’s exhausting not to.
One other thing is also becoming apparent: There’s a fine line between radical honesty and creepiness. Or actually no line at all. It’s simple logic: Men think about sex every three minutes, as the scientists at Redbook remind us. If you speak whatever’s on your mind, you’ll be talking about sex every three minutes.
There’s a fine line between radical honesty and creepiness. Or actually no line at all
I have a business breakfast with an editor from Rachael Ray’s magazine. As we’re sitting together, I tell her that I remember what she wore the first time we met — a black shirt that revealed her shoulders in a provocative way. I say that I’d try to sleep with her if I were single. I confess to her that I just attempted (unsuccessfully) to look down her shirt during breakfast.
She smiles. Though I do notice she leans back farther in her seat.
The thing is, the separate cubbyholes of my personality are merging. Usually, there’s a professional self, a home self, a friend self, a with-the-guys self. Now, it’s one big improper mess. This woman and I have either taken a step forward in our relationship, or she’ll never return my calls again.
When I get home, I keep the momentum going. I call a friend to say that I fantasize about his wife. (He says he likes my wife, too, and suggests a key party.)
I inform our twenty-seven-year-old nanny that “if my wife left me, I would ask you out on a date, because I think you are stunning.”
She laughs. Nervously.
“I think that makes you uncomfortable, so I won’t mention it again. It was just on my mind.”
Now I’ve made my own skin crawl. I feel like I should just buy a trench coat and start lurking around subway platforms. Blanton says he doesn’t believe sex talk in the workplace counts as sexual harassment — it’s tight-assed society’s fault if people can’t handle the truth — but my nanny confession just feels like pure abuse of power.
Now I’ve made my own skin crawl. I feel like I should just buy a trench coat and start lurking around subway platforms
All this lasciviousness might be more palatable if I were a single man. In fact, I have a theory: I think Blanton devised Radical Honesty partly as a way to pick up women. It’s a brilliant strategy. The antithesis of mind games. Transparent mating.
And according to Blanton, it’s effective. He tells me about a woman he once met on a Paris subway and asked out for tea. When they sat down, he said, “I didn’t really want any tea; I was just trying to figure out a way to delay you so I could talk to you for a while, because I want to go to bed with you.” They went to bed together. Or another seduction technique of his: “Wanna fuck?”
“That works?” I asked.
“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s the creation of possibility.”
I lied today. A retired man from New Hampshire — a friend of a friend — wrote some poems and sent them to me. His wife just died, and he’s taken up poetry. He just wanted someone in publishing to read his work. A professional opinion.
I read them. I didn’t like them much, but I wrote to him that I thought they were very good.
So I e-mail Blanton for the first time since our meeting and confess what I did. I write, “His wife just died, he doesn’t have friends. He’s kind of pathetic. I read his stuff, or skimmed it actually. I didn’t like it. I thought it was boring and badly written. So I e-mailed a lie. I said I really like the poems and hope they get published. He wrote me back so excited and how it made his week and how he was about to give up on them but my e-mail gave him the stamina to keep trying.”
I ask Blanton whether I made a mistake.
He responds curtly. I need to come to his eight-day workshop to “even begin to get what [Radical Honesty] is about.” He says we need to meet in person.
Meet in person? Did he toss down so many bourbons I vanished from his memory? I tell him we did meet.
Blanton writes back testily that he remembers. But I still need to take a workshop (price tag: $2,800). His only advice on my quandary: “Send the man the e-mail you sent me about lying to him and ask him to call you when he gets it…and see what you learn.”
Show him the e-mail? Are you kidding? What a hardcore bastard.
In his book, Radical Honesty, Blanton advises us to start sentences with the words “I resent you for” or “I appreciate you for.” So I write him back.
“I resent you for being so different in these e-mails than you were when we met. You were friendly and engaging and encouraging when we met. Now you seem to have turned judgmental and tough. I resent you for giving me the advice to break that old man’s heart by telling him that his poems suck.”
Blanton responds quickly. First, he doesn’t like that I expressed my resentment by e-mail. I should have come to see him. “What you don’t seem to get yet, A.J., is that the reason for expressing resentment directly and in person is so that you can experience in your body the sensations that occur when you express the resentment, while at the same time being in the presence of the person you resent, and so you can stay with them until the sensations arise and recede and then get back to neutral — which is what forgiveness is.”
Second, he tells me that telling the old man the truth would be compassionate, showing the “authentic caring underneath your usual intellectual bullshit and overvaluing of your critical judgment. Your lie is not useful to him. In fact, it is simply avoiding your responsibility as one human being to another. That’s okay. It happens all the time. It is not a mortal sin. But don’t bullshit yourself about it being kind.”
He ends with this: “I don’t want to spend a lot of time explaining things to you for your cute little project of playing with telling the truth if you don’t have the balls to try it.”
I know my e-mail to the old man was wrong. I shouldn’t have been so rah-rah effusive. But here, I’ve hit the outer limit of Radical Honesty, a hard wall. I can’t trash the old man.
I try to understand Blanton’s point about compassion. To most of us, honesty often means cruelty.
But to Blanton, honesty and compassion are the ones in sync. It’s an intriguing way to look at the world, but I just don’t buy it in the case of the widower poet. Screw Blanton. (By the way: I broke Radical Honesty and changed the identifying details of the old-man story so as not to humiliate him. Also, I’ve messed a bit with the timeline of events to simplify things. Sorry.)
To compensate for my wimpiness, I decide to toughen up. Which is probably the exact wrong thing to do. Today, I’m getting a haircut, and my barber is telling me he doesn’t want his wife to get pregnant because she’ll get too fat (a bit of radical honesty of his own), and I say, “You know, I’m tired. I have a cold. I don’t want to talk anymore. I want to read.”
“Okay,” he says, wielding his scissors, “go ahead and read.”
Later, I do the same thing with my in-laws when they’re yapping on about preschools. “I’m bored,” I announce. “I’ll be back later.” And with that, I leave the living room.
I tell Blanton, hoping for his approval. Did anything come of it? he asks. Any discussions and insights? Hmmm.
He’s right. If you’re going to be a schmuck, at least you should find some redeeming quality in it. Blanton’s a master of this. One of his tricks is to say things with such glee and enthusiasm, it’s hard to get too pissed. “You may be a petty asshole,” he says, “but at least you’re not a secret petty asshole.” Then he’ll laugh.
I have yet to learn that trick myself. Consider how I handled this scene at a diner a couple of blocks from my apartment.
“Everything okay?” asked our server, an Asian man with tattoos.
“Yeah, except for the coffee. I always have to order espresso here, because the espresso tastes like regular coffee. The regular coffee here is terrible. Can’t you guys make stronger coffee?”
The waiter said no and walked away. My friend looked at me. “I’m embarrassed for you,” he said. “And I’m embarrassed to be around you.”
“I know. Me, too.” I felt like a Hollywood producer who parks in handicapped spots. I ask Blanton what I should have done.
“You should have said, ‘This coffee tastes like shit!’ ” he says, cackling.
I will say this: One of the best parts of Radical Honesty is that I’m saving a whole lot of time. It’s a cut-to-the-chase way to live. At work, I’ve been waiting for my boss to reply to a memo for ten days. So I write him: “I’m annoyed that you didn’t respond to our memo earlier. But at the same time, I’m relieved, because then if we don’t nail one of the things you want, we can blame any delays on your lack of response.”
Pressing send makes me nervous — but the e-mail works. My boss responds: “I will endeavor to respond by tomorrow. Been gone from N.Y. for two weeks.” It is borderline apologetic. I can push my power with my boss further than I thought.
Later, a friend of a friend wants to meet for a meal. I tell him I don’t like leaving my house. “I agree to meet some people for lunch because I fear hurting their feelings if I don’t. And in this terrifying age where everyone has a blog, I don’t want to offend people, because then they’d write on their blogs what an asshole I am, and it would turn up in every Google search for the rest of my life.”
He writes back: “Normally, I don’t really like meeting editors anyway. Makes me ill to think about it, because I’m afraid of coming off like the idiot that, deep down, I suspect I am.”
That’s one thing I’ve noticed: When I am radically honest, people become radically honest themselves. I feel my resentment fade away. I like this guy. We have a good meeting.
When I am radically honest, people become radically honest themselves
In fact, all my relationships can take a whole lot more truth than I expected. Consider this one: For years, I’ve had a chronic problem where I refer to my wife, Julie, by my sister’s name, Beryl. I always catch myself midway through and pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve never confessed to Julie. Why should I? It either means that I’m sexually attracted to my sister, which is not good. Or that I think of my wife as my sister, also not good.
But today, in the kitchen, when I have my standard mental sister-wife mix-up, I decide to tell Julie about it.
“That’s strange,” she says.
We talk about it. I feel unburdened, closer to my wife now that we share this quirky, slightly disturbing knowledge. I realize that by keeping it secret, I had given it way too much weight. I hope she feels the same way.
I call up Blanton one last time, to get his honest opinion about how I’ve done.
“I’m finishing my experiment,” I say.
“You going to start lying again?” he asks.
“Oh, shit. It didn’t work.”
“But I’m going to lie less than I did before.”
I tell him about my confession to Julie that I sometimes want to call her Beryl. “No big deal,” says Blanton. “People in other cultures have sex with their sisters all the time.”
I bring up the episode about telling the editor from Rachael Ray’s magazine that I tried to look down her shirt, but he sounds disappointed. “Did you tell your wife?” he asks. “That’s the good part.”
Finally, I describe to him how I told Julie that I didn’t care to hear the end of her story about fixing her computer. Blanton asks how she responded.
“She said, ‘Fuck you.’ “
“That’s good!” Blanton says. “I like that. That’s communicating.“
Esquire Editor-at-Large A.J. Jacobs is the author of A Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, published by Simon & Schuster.
WHY WE WORRY
It sounds paradoxical and absurd to think that some of us might need to find something to worry about in order to recover our equilibrium. Worry is, after all, something we should rightly hate to have to suffer and should engage with only when absolutely necessary.
Yet, some of us do start to feel distinctly nervous when things around us settle down and pervasive stillness descends. We start to feel anxiety about the future precisely when – and in a sense because – there is nothing especially awful on the horizon. We wake up in the middle of a quiet night, filled with an unnamable dread. We may pick up our phones in the hope that they will deliver a requisite shock of anxiety: we scan the news for alarming stories; we look out for aggressive or problem-laden emails. And, normally, we quickly hit on something to return us to a more familiar panicked mode.
Our behaviour might be easy to mock and dismiss but the fact that we need to find something to worry about isn’t mere indulgence. It’s evidence of a particular kind of problem that deserves special compassion and patient understanding. The compulsive need to worry is evidence that – somewhere in a past we haven’t fully unpacked and understood – we underwent something properly worrying and sad. Before our adult faculties were adequately in place, we suffered a traumatic set of events that jammed our inner alarms into their ‘on’ modes and we haven’t been able to quieten them, or soothe ourselves, since.
OUR FORGOTTEN TRAUMA
But what is worse is that the original trauma has been forgotten. We don’t even notice that the inner alarms are ringing. The manic worrier worries, as it were, about ‘everything’ because they are unable to be appropriately concerned with, and in mourning for, one or two big things from long ago. The anxiety that belonged to one particular distant time and place has been redistributed and subdivided across hundreds of ever shifting topics in the present (from workplace to reputation, money to household tasks) because its true source and origins remain unknown to the sufferer.
We are using the flotsam and jetsam of everyday worries as a proxy for an unmasterable trauma: shame; humiliation; a sense we don’t matter to our caregivers; neglect or abuse. We should not sarcastically point out to worriers that they need ‘something else to worry about’, we should realise that something terrifying that they have buried deep in their unconscious is lending a continuous sense of dread to their fragile present.
“THE CATASTROPHE WE FEAR WILL HAPPEN HAS ALREADY HAPPENED”
The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott captured the dynamic of this forgetting in a memorable phrase: ‘the catastrophe we think will happen has in fact already happened.’
We manic worriers need not sarcasm but supportive and intelligent company to give us the love we need to dare to look back at the past – and the insight with which to try to do so. Our feeling of dread is a symptom of an ancient sorrow that hasn’t found its target in the here and now; and our ongoing quest and alarm is a sign that we keep not finding anything in the outer world that answers to the horror of the inner one.
Needless to say, it isn’t the case that there is never anything to worry about in the present, just that there is a lot less than the manic worrier tends to believe. Furthermore, what there is to worry about can be coped with with far more resilience than the manic worrier can imagine, for they are operating with what is essentially a child’s sense of their own powers and capacity for survival.
Rather than constantly checking their phones at 4am, manic worriers should gradually come to exchange their feelings of dread for the future for a patient understanding and mourning for an unfairly traumatic and as yet insufficiently explored past.
Lesson 163 There is no death. The Son of God is free.
Death is a thought that takes on many forms, often unrecognized. It may appear as sadness, fear, anxiety or doubt; as anger, faithlessness and lack of trust; concern for bodies, envy, and all forms in which the wish to be as you are not may come to tempt you. All such thoughts are but reflections of the worshipping of death as savior and as giver of release.
Embodiment of fear, the host of sin, god of the guilty and the lord of all illusions and deceptions, does the thought of death seem mighty. For it seems to hold all living things within its withered hand; all hopes and wishes in its blighting grasp; all goals perceived but in its sightless eyes. The frail, the helpless and the sick bow down before its image, thinking it alone is real, inevitable, worthy of their trust. For it alone will surely come.
All things but death are seen to be unsure, too quickly lost however hard to gain, uncertain in their outcome, apt to fail the hopes they once engendered, and to leave the taste of dust and ashes in their wake, in place of aspirations and of dreams. But death is counted on. For it will come with certain footsteps when the time has come for its arrival. It will never fail to take all life as hostage to itself.
Would you bow down to idols such as this? Here is the strength and might of God Himself perceived within an idol made of dust. Here is the opposite of God proclaimed as lord of all creation, stronger than God’s Will for life, the endlessness of love and Heaven’s perfect, changeless constancy. Here is the Will of Father and of Son defeated finally, and laid to rest beneath the headstone death has placed upon the body of the holy Son of God.
Unholy in defeat, he has become what death would have him be. His epitaph, which death itself has written, gives no name to him, for he has passed to dust. It says but this: “Here lies a witness God is dead.” And this it writes again and still again, while all the while its worshippers agree, and kneeling down with foreheads to the ground, they whisper fearfully that it is so.
It is impossible to worship death in any form, and still select a few you would not cherish and would yet avoid, while still believing in the rest. For death is total. Either all things die, or else they live and cannot die. No compromise is possible. For here again we see an obvious position, which we must accept if we be sane; what contradicts one thought entirely can not be true, unless its opposite is proven false.
The idea of the death of God is so preposterous that even the insane have difficulty in believing it. For it implies that God was once alive and somehow perished; killed, apparently, by those who did not want Him to survive. Their stronger will could triumph over His, and so eternal life gave way to death. And with the Father died the Son as well.
Death’s worshippers may be afraid. And yet, can thoughts like these be fearful? If they saw that it is only this which they believe, they would be instantly released. And you will show them this today. There is no death, and we renounce it now in every form, for their salvation and our own as well. God made not death. Whatever form it takes must therefore be illusion. This the stand we take today. And it is given us to look past death, and see the life beyond.
Our Father, bless our eyes today. We are Your messengers, and we would look upon the glorious reflection of Your Love which shines in everything. We live and move in You alone. We are not separate from Your eternal life. There is no death, for death is not Your Will. And we abide where You have placed us, in the life we share with You and with all living things, to be like You and part of You forever. We accept Your Thoughts as ours, and our will is one with Yours eternally. Amen.
by Kittredge Cherry | Dec 27, 2021 (qspirit.net)
Last Updated on December 29, 2021 by Kittredge Cherry
John the Evangelist is commonly considered to be Jesus’ “Beloved Disciple” — and possibly his lover. His feast day is Dec. 27.
The love between Jesus and John has been celebrated by artists since medieval times. And the idea that they were same-sex lovers has been inspiring queer people and causing controversy for centuries.
John was an apostle of Jesus and is the presumed author of the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation and the Epistles of John. The Bible describes their warm relationship on multiple occasions. John and his brother James left their lives as a fishermen in Galilee to follow Jesus. He nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder,” perhaps referring to their fiery temperaments or powerful voices. John participated in many of the main events in Christ’s ministry. He was one of the three who witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the transfiguration and Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane.
The unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” is referenced five times in the gospel of John (John 13:23, 19:26, 20:22, 21:7, 20). The author identifies himself as the Beloved Disciple in the final chapter. Early church tradition ascribes authorship directly to John. Other identities proposed for the Beloved Disciple include Lazarus, Thomas, Mary Magdalene and even Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Because the Beloved Disciple is left unnamed, each believer is free to imagine or be that beloved disciple in their own way.
No other male disciples were present at the crucifixion. From the cross, Jesus entrusted the Beloved Disciple and his mother Mary into each other’s care. Legends say that John took her with him to the Turkish city of Ephesus, where the major temple to the goddess Artemis was rededicated to Mary.
The gospel of John, the most mystical gospel, is attributed to John. This gospel is also noted for its gender inclusivity in portraying the important role of women such as Mary and Martha of Bethany, the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene. In John’s gospel, the Beloved Disciple was the first to reach the empty tomb of Jesus, the first to believe in his resurrection and the first to recognize the risen Christ at the miraculous catch of fish.
After Jesus was crucified, John went on to build a close, loving relationship with his younger disciple and scribe, Prochorus, bishop of Nicomedia. Tradition says that John was the only one of Christ’s original 12 apostles to live to old age, and the only one not killed for his faith. He died in Ephesus around 100 AD.
Did Jesus and John share an erotic relationship?
Whoever he or she was, the Beloved Disciple reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper, resting his head on Jesus’ chest. There is even a medieval European tradition that John and Jesus were the bridal couple at the Cana wedding feast. Jesus performed his first miracle at Cana by turning water into wine. The Bible tells the story in John 2:1-11 without ever naming who was getting married. But the apocryphal Acts of John state that John broke off his engagement to a woman to “bind himself” to Jesus. The idea that Jesus wed John at Cana is discussed by Gerard Loughlin in the introduction to “Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body.”
One of the earliest images of John and Jesus together is a little-known 12th-century miniature, “The Calling of St. John.” It depicts two scenes: Christ coaxing the disciple John to leave his female bride and follow him, and John resting his head on Jesus’ chest. Jesus cups the chin of his beloved, an artistic convention used to indicate romantic intimacy. The Latin text means, “Get up, leave the breast of your bride, and rest on the breast of the Lord Jesus.”
An entire chapter is dedicated to John as the bride of Christ in the 2013 book “Saintly Brides and Bridegrooms: The Mystic Marriage in Renaissance Art” by Carolyn D. Muir, art professor at the University of Hong Kong.
“John the Apostle resting on the bosom of Christ,” Swabia/Lake Constance, early 14th century. Photo by Andreas Praefcke. (Wikimedia Commons)
The idea that Jesus and his Beloved Disciple had a sexual relationship was publicly discussed in early 16th century, when English playwright Christopher Marlowe was tried for blasphemy on the charge of claiming that “St. John the Evangelist was bedfellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom, that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma.” In 1550 Francesco Calcagno, a citizen of Venice, was investigated by the Inquisition for making the heretical claim that “St. John was Christ’s catamite,” which means a boy or young man in a pederastic sexual relationship with an older man.
Many modern scholars have expressed belief that Jesus and his Beloved Disciple shared a an erotic physical relationship. They include Hugh Montefiore, Robert Williams, Sjef van Tilborg, John McNeill, Rollan McCleary, Robert E. Goss and James Neill. A thorough analysis is included in “The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament” by the late Theodore Jennings, who served as Biblical theology professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. He finds the evidence “inconclusive” as to whether the beloved disciple was John, but it leaves no doubt that Jesus had a male lover.
“A close reading of the texts in which the beloved disciple appears supports the hypothesis that the relationship between him and Jesus may be understood as that of lovers. As it happens, both Jesus and the beloved are male, meaning that their relationship may be said to be, in modern terms, a ‘homosexual’ relationship,” Jennings writes (p. 34).
The homoeroticism of the relationship is also explored in the chapter on the Beloved Disciple in
“The Double: Male Eros, Friendships, and Mentoring–from Gilgamesh to Kerouac” by Edward Sellner.
While the earliest depictions emphasize the closeness between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, modern translations keep putting more distance between them. Gay Christian author Chris Glaser writes on his blog,
In ‘As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage,’ I pointed out how recent translations have distanced the Beloved Disciple, believed to be John, from Jesus. In the King James Version “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” The Revised Standard Version describes him as “lying close to the breast of Jesus.” But the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible have the Beloved Disciple simply “reclining next” to Jesus. As the Beloved disciple moves farther away from Jesus with newer versions, I imagine in the next translation he will be in another room!
The queer history of their relationship is presented in the video “Before Stonewall, Episode 5: The Myth of the Beloved Disciple” by historian Chad Denton.https://www.youtube.com/embed/KcE_xnpucKQ
Jesus embraces the Beloved Disciple in historical art
A newly discovered painting of Jesus and his Beloved Disciple was recently unveiled to the public for the first time in 450 years. They appear in the Last Supper by Italian nun Plautilla Nelli.
It is the world’s first known depiction of the Last Supper by a woman. Nelli was a Dominican nun and the first woman painter of Renaissance Florence. Her life-size Last Supper is about 23 feet long, almost as big as Da Vinci’s famous version. The Dominican nun was a self-taught artist with many patrons, including women.
Now-iconic images of the loving embrace between John and Christ apparently originated during the early 1300s in German convents in the Rhineland and Swabia. These were devotional images intended to help viewers deepen their connection to Christ. Prolific artists created many versions. Today one of them is housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio.
The subject is known as “Christus Johannes Gruppe” (Christ John Group) or Johannesminne (love of John), with minne being a Middle High German word for erotic-emotional love. Many of these images were actually created for women, not men, to contemplate. Most if not all of the Johannesminne statues were altarpieces for Dominican convents and nunneries.
For example, “Christus Johannes Gruppe” (Christ John Group) by the unknown Master of Oberschwaben spent many centuries in an Augustinian convent in Inzigkofen, a town in the region of Sigmaringen in southwestern Germany. A museum in Berlin acquired in it the early 20th century, and it is now housed in the Bode Museum of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
The history, eroticism, appeal and impact of these devotional images is explored in “The Late Medieval Andachtsbild,” an unpublished essay by Daniel G. Conklin, a retired Anglican priest in Berlin. He writes,
“One common characteristic of the Johannesminne is that the figure of John seems a bit gender-ambiguous, i.e. it looks like he might be a “she.” Considering the place where these images arose and were beheld, it takes no great stretch of the imagination to envision the effect of the Johannesminne on a cloistered young woman who was well versed in the Cistercian “bridal” mysticism of St. Bernard of Clairvaux…. The Johannesminne is an image of profound tenderness embued with a kind of gentle eroticism. As an altarpiece it must have been a constant reminder of the connection between the Lord’s Last Supper and the celebration of the Mass and it surely reinforced the pious conviction that in the Eucharistic bread and wine the risen Christ “dwells in us and we in him” in a profound and intimate way.”
Conklin goes on to identify homoeroticism as one source of the image’s enduring power:
“The popularity of the Johannesminne – then and now – may also stem from the fact that this is an image involving love and tenderness between two adult males. The fact that this Andachtsbild arose in monasteries, communities of same-sex individuals, probably comes as no surprise. Its power to awaken faith and delight in close communion with Christ is perhaps not its only appeal. The Johannesminne has become perhaps even more appealing in our day in which people of the same gender in committed relationships seek some form(s) of faith confirmation of who they are and whose they are. The Johannesminne may very well serve as a mirror as well as a model for many, not only same-sex oriented persons.”
1967 German Stamp with “Christ-John Group” (Wikimedia Commons)
In Germany the Johannesminne image remains so important that it has even been made into a postage stamp. Its influence may also live on in today’s popular “Sacred Heart of Jesus” icons, which show the physical heart of Jesus in his chest. Conklin explains:
The Johannesminne as an altarpiece not only visualized the intimate communion of the Eucharist, but also seems to have been one of the essential sources for the unfolding of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” mysticism which developed later, but had its beginnings in this Andachtsbild. The beholder could imagine John, i.e. the beholder him/herself, hearing the heartbeat of Jesus while leaning on his chest. The communion is that “close.”
Another early sculpture in this style is “St. John Resting on Jesus’ Chest,” circa 1320, which is housed at the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp. It can be seen online at the Web Gallery of Art. The sculpture was created by Master Heinrich of Constance for the the Dominican convent of St. Catherine’s valley in Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons displays a set of 10 statues of Johannesminne in Germany at this link.
“Johannesminne of Heiligkreuztal” by Tobias HallerIn contemporary times “Johannesminne” was sketched by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and retired vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx, still assisting at a parish in Baltimore, Maryland. His sketch is based on the Johannesminne sculpture in the convent at Heiligkreuztal in Altheim, Germany. Haller is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.John’s intimacy with Jesus at the Last Supper continued to fascinate artists as the centuries passed. Examples from the 1500s include an Albrecht Durer print and a sculpture at the Italian basilica known as Sacro Monte di Varallo (Sacred Mountain of Varallo).
Detail from “The Last Supper” by from the Small Passion by Albrecht Durer, 1511Continue reading John the Evangelist: Beloved Disciple of Jesus — and maybe his lover
Up-Wingers: A Futurist Manifesto
A lost, shining example of 70’s socio-futurist wondering, Upwingers is a stirring manifesto. Real proclamations are hard to find in this day and age of sound bites and half-hearted cynicism. See why the Village Voice called F.M. Esfandiary “a man so rational, so articulately confident, that he emanates a kind of ultimate optimism–the triumph over alienation and irrationality.” He deals in possibilities; he makes the unknown his favorite subject and with Upwingers, he makes the future a revolutionary rendezvous.
New Thinking Allowed with Jeffrey Mishlove Jason Reza Jorjani, PhD, is a philosopher and author of Prometheus and Atlas, World State of Emergency, Lovers of Sophia, Novel Folklore: The Blind Owl of Sadegh Hedayat, Iranian Leviathan: A Monumental History of Mithra’s Abode, and Prometheism. Here he suggests that humankind is at a brink of a series of technological breakthroughs so radical as to alter our understanding of reality in ways that are unpredictable. GRIN technologies include genetic engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. In addition, he discusses time travel and the prospect that we are living inside of a programmable virtual reality. (Recorded on July 29, 2020)
ChaplinsViolin Music: Smile Artist: Nat King Cole Software: Windows Movie Maker Lyrics: Smile though your heart is aching Smile even though its breaking When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by If you smile through your fear and sorrow Smile and maybe tomorrow Youll see the sun come shining through, for you Light up your face with gladness Hide every trace of sadness Although a tear may be ever so near That’s the time you must keep on trying Smile, what’s the use of crying? You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile That’s the time you must keep on trying Smile, what’s the use of crying? You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile Please leave comments!
Music in this video
CABU Jazz Masters – Une Anthologie 1949-1955
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