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When All You Have Is A Hammer--Everything Looks Like A Nail

September 25, 2011

Bible Reading

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:1-11)


Today I want to challenge you to see things from a new point of view, to view life through a different lens. Let’s take our mental blinders off and look at God’s works from a different point of view. Let’s take a moment, break out of our daily rituals, and look for the beauty in God’s creation. Let’s stop and smell the roses.

What does it mean for everything to “look like a nail?” By this image, I mean several things. First, we all have our ideas of how things work and our own experiences of how things are done. This concept is often referred to as “memory-knowledges” in translations of Swedenborg.

Elliot, however, uses the term “facts” in his 1983 translation of Arcana Coelestia. I, coming from the computer programming world, prefer to refer to this concept as our “mental model.” Whatever you call it, such a perspective is not necessarily bad. After all, it guides us through our day from situation to situation. If we had no concept of how the world worked, our day would be stressful, indeed.

Imagine what would happen if you had no experiences or expectations of your day-to-day world. You would not know that turning the steering wheel of your car would turn your front wheels, which turns you car. You would not know that the apple falling from the tree would hit you on the head. You would not know that the sun rises every morning. From the moment we wake to the moment we close our eyes at night, our mental model helps us get through life.

Where this breaks down is when we encounter something outside our experience or a situation whose correct solution is outside of our experience, or when we are searching for something that our experiences cannot help us find.

Have you learned a foreign language? I have learned a couple myself, and I have always agreed with my teachers when they have said that the very words available in a language shape the mental models of the speakers of that language. Let’s take an example from English, a language we all (presumably, since you are reading this!) know. Many years ago, I had a suitemate from Miami. He had never seen snow before, and during our first heavy snowfall—in Ithaca, New York, heavy snow happens depressingly frequently—he said, “It’s really pouring out.”

What’s wrong with this statement? Well, those of us from the north know that snow does not “pour,” it falls. My friend from Miami was trying to fit snowfall into his experience and mental model of rainfall, whereas our northern experiences categorize snow differently from rain.

Another example is the claim that something like seventeen different Inuit words exist for “snow.” Whether or not this factoid is actually true, I know that there are different types of snow. When we were first married, my lovely wife did not believe that I could tell the temperature outside by the sound of the snow. Growing up in Minnesota and having to walk a mile to school (uphill both ways!), I can tell you that if the snow sounds like Styrofoam when you walk on it, the temperature is below zero. But people from southern New England apparently cannot even imagine this concept, because it falls outside their experience.

The second meaning possible for the saying that “everything looks like a nail” is the possession of a closed mind. In such a case, we have our mental blinders on. Anything that does not fit our mental model is rejected. When our mind is closed, we cannot see; we cannot even see what is in front of us. Swedenborg wrote that

All this shows how sensually people are thinking when they say that nature exists in its own right, how reliant they are on their physical senses and their darkness in matters of the spirit. They are thinking from the eye and are unable to think from the understanding. Thinking from the eye closes understanding, but thinking from understanding opens the eye. They are unable to entertain any thought about inherent reality and manifestation, any thought that it is eternal, uncreated, and infinite. They can entertain no thought about life except as something volatile that vanishes into thin air, no other thought about love and wisdom, and no thought whatever about the fact that they are the source of everything in nature. (Divine Love and Wisdom 46)

So, for example, the other night I was out observing (by which I mean I was out with my telescope) and had a small—and non-smelly—encounter with skunk ambling across my back yard. He was about ten feet away. After we regarded each other for about ten seconds, he continued on his journey. Then, last Saturday, I was again out observing when in rolled the clouds. After packing my gear away, I was heading for the back door of my house when I heard a scratching sound. Another skunk. Finally, last Sunday night, I was out again. By this time, I naturally had skunks on my mind. So when I heard a rustling in the yard and saw two beady eyes, I “saw” a skunk. It turned out to be the neighborhood black cat. But the cat didn’t fit my mental model, so what I saw was a skunk.

The third meaning of the saying has to do with executing rites without regard for the underlying meaning of the rites—that is, repeating a ritual merely to repeat the ritual, making it devoid of meaning. As St. Matthew wrote:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” . . . Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”

Which, as Swedenborg points out, is blind faith in rituals:

If religion teaches a blind faith, it blinds our discernment just the way ignorance does. It is then teaching a false theology; for just as truths open our discernment, falsities close it. They close it from above but open it downward; and discernment that is open only downward cannot see truths. All it can do is justify whatever it wants to, especially anything false. (Divine Providence 144)

Every day I go through the same mindless ritual: coffee, shower, drive to the train station, ride into Boston, work, ride back from Boston, drive from the train station, catch the news, have dinner. Don’t I lead a boring life? What I’m challenging myself—and you—to do is to break that ritual. Stop and look at God’s work that is all around us. When it rains, don’t blindly complain about the rain. See how the rains feed our verdant landscape; “April showers bring May flowers.” When I see a skunk, instead of seeing a potentially stinky outcome, I should see a magnificent creature, ambling along in its own majesty, perfectly created for what it does.

I hope that I have challenged you to take a break from your everyday rituals and stop, think, and look around yourself with a new eye, an open mind; to see the Lord’s creations with a new light; to look upon our amazing universe with the wonder of a child.


William Lee