Saturday, August 12, 2006

Crisis? What crisis?

Today's reading, from 1 Corinthians 7, talks about living in "the present crisis," (7.26) and is based on insightful comments from the lovely Carol. But before that, I want to debunk something I've read many times about the word crisis.

According to various books and articles, the Chinese word for crisis consists of two ideographs, one meaning "danger" and the other meaning "opportunity". The author/consultant/guru typically interprets this as meaning there's danger but there's also an opportunity to do something Good. It's a place where you might create an inflection point or something, they say.

This all seemed reasonable to me until something happened: I moved to Japan and learned Japanese, and then one day I actually saw this word. Here it is: 危機. Sure enough, the first ideograph roughly means "danger" and the second word roughly means "opportunity" (or "machine," which is the first sense I had of the word).

But the plain and obvious meaning of this combination of "kanji" (as we say in Japan) is "chance of danger." It does not obviously say to me, "opportunity for an inflection point in a time of danger".

Allowing for the possibility that Chinese words or Chinese sensibilities may differ completely from their Japanese counterparts, my opinion is that some English-speaking author/guru/consultant simply misinterpreted the Asian word. This mistake was copied by others, and those copies were copied, and so on, in what my World Civ professor called "standardization of error" back in the 1970s. ("I wish you would remember that," he often said, and sure enough I did.)

OK, I just wanted to get that off my chest. Paul is talking about single young people:
Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.
1 Corinthians 7.26-27
Since trying to change your situation brings a lot of overhead, the overhead is best avoided. This next part is really interesting:
What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
1 Corinthians 7.29-31
I asked the lovely and brilliant Carol what she made of this passage. Her take, roughly, was that we should keep in mind that any day could be our last.

Live, in other words, like we're aliens here on Earth (as in 1 Peter 2) because we're citizens of heaven (as in Philippians 3).

I'm not quite sure what to make of the list of particulars -- to live as though having no wife, as not mourning or rejoicing, etc., but here's one story that comes to mind:
Some couples, when they've made it financially, have their "dream house" built. According to one builder, these homes are on the whole a waste of time and money because the couples can't enjoy them; they get divorced instead.
I'm not quite sure why that story came to mind, but anyway there it was. I don't think Paul could be saying "Never rejoice or mourn!" because he says in Romans 12 to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep; in Philippians 4 and 1 Thessalonians 5 he says to rejoice (or be joyful) always.

But things get clearer when he talks about buying things and using the things of this world. We should keep in mind that whatever we've got, we've only got it for a short time; we're not taking it with us. Our pastor mentioned some weeks ago that when you're on vacation, staying in a rented room, you don't spend a lot of money decorating and improving it. The room isn't yours to keep; it's just temporary.

I'm not sure exactly what the crisis is, but the application is clear: to number our days, to face the fact that we're here for only a finite time -- a few decades more -- and to use those days well for things that we'll be happy about when we come to the end of them.

posted 8/14

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