Writing in the Dust (On “Knowing” Things)


By Wayne Allensworth

For all my friends, whatever their beliefs, that we may all open our eyes and see.

Recorded in the Gospel According to St. John, Chapter 8, is one of the most intriguing stories in the Bible. Jesus was teaching at the temple when the scribes and Pharisees brought an adulterous woman to him for judgment. In one of many instances when the religious authorities attempted to trap Jesus, the Pharisees cited the law of Moses, and said the woman must be stoned. “What sayest thou?” they asked.

But Jesus behaved as though he did not hear them. He stooped to the ground and wrote something in the dust with his finger. They continued to press him for an answer, and he rose and told them, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” Then he stooped once more and again wrote something. The story is often cited as an example of Jesus being forgiving, of foregoing the smug, easy condemnation of the Pharisees, though the last line of his comments is less often cited: “Go, and sin no more.” Grace and forgiveness, yes, but not approval — what today is called “tolerance.” My yoke is easy, my burden is light. But this very night thy soul will be required of thee.

As for the crowd that had gathered around him: “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one.”

But what impresses this reader about the passage is how strikingly human it is, as well as strikingly humane. It has the ring of truth. Jesus’ gestures and body language are those of a real person. It’s not hard for me to picture a man knowing he is being tried and tested by hypocrites, his mind taking it all in and formulating an answer, using words that are inseparable from his gestures, his attitude and bearing and the depth of his reply being conveyed all at once. Actions flow together with speech. Embodied communication. Christianity stresses the importance of embodiment, and the incarnation is at the center of it.

Again, it impresses me that that is exactly the way real people communicate with one another. Gesture coincides with speech. Meaning is conveyed in a stream of body language, facial expression, and tone and intonation. The assembled crowd reacted to them all.

This is not the kind of magical tale of the pagan stories, where gods disguise themselves as animals, mortals take on animal, even plant form, and animals appear as humans. The Christian story is fraught with paradox, divinity and humanity in one man, but a man, one who seems like a real person, not a walking marble statue.

One may turn to citing certain evidence to suggest that Christ was a man who lived in a particular place and time, that he was not invented by the authors of the gospels as part of an instructive story used, as the best myths are, to convey truth in a way that dry and referential language fails to do. I’ve done it myself.

The compelling message of Christianity contains a lot more. I’ve mentioned paradox, the strange juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory phenomena or claims that are both true but seem to cancel each other out. Life is fraught with them — and with our being forced by circumstances to determine that a certain asymmetry is at work, that some things in proper context are truer than another true thing. They tell us truths about our world and how we should live in it.

Jesus, a walking paradox, deals with this more than once in confronting his accusers.


He was, for instance, accused of breaking the Sabbath. The Pharisees took Christ to task for his disciples’ picking grain to eat on the Sabbath. He replied by saying that the Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath. In another instance, Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and healed a man with a withered hand, knowing his enemies awaited another opportunity to accuse him. “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life or to kill?” he asked them. They kept their peace. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asked which of them, if one of his sheep fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, would not pull it out. Jesus was not simply declaring himself “lord of the Sabbath.” And he did more than ask whether rescuing the sheep would technically break the Sabbath. That is the wrong question. He was really asking, “What is the Sabbath for?” How we frame a question alters how we answer it.

I refer readers again to my series of articles on Ian McGilchrist and his hemisphere theory of human cognition. The left hemisphere (LH) requires certainty. It is used when sharp focus on a narrow issue is at hand. It cannot abide paradox. It is the home of precise definition, and it therefore ignores the fuzzy edges of real experience. It is meant to be “the emissary” of its “master,” the right hemisphere (RH), the home of holistic, intuitive, empathetic, pattern recognizing cognition. It is the basis of insight. The RH grounds us in reality and allows for consideration of context. Ideally, the RH spots an anomaly, shifts attention to the LH for close examination, then incorporates what its emissary finds in a holistic view. What’s more, the RH assumes value, while the LH is cold and detached, viewing all beings as objects for manipulation or as subjects for rules and strict categorization. And that is the way of the harsh, and, in the end, the destructive Pharisees’ mode of “thinking.” Cold rationality lacks empathy and a sense of relationship between ourselves and others. And that relationship is necessary for us to live in a manner that a mechanical, strictly rules-based, view of humanity cannot allow for. Legalists, idealogues, zealots, and fanatics are about control and the will to power.

We “know” many and probably most truths not by a process of reduction, by breaking down the world, viewed as a mechanistic thing, into its “parts” in a sequential, rules based, contextless clinical manner. Instead, we know them by intuition and experiential reasoning. Thus, we “know” that it is lawful to do good on any day, and that we had better be careful about casting the first stone. In fact, we don’t sequentially “think through” every problem, as much as that is required in certain instances — say, building a bridge or repairing a machine (though intuition does play a part there, too). We immediately understand many situations with little reflection. It is “knowing” as understanding, not as formulaic certainty, something that requires no accounting for context or appeal to value (“Is it lawful on the Sabbath days to do good, or to do evil?”).   

Or the certainty of the Pharisees, whose legalism misses the point. That’s the certainty of a rigid and unrelenting zealot. The Pharisees and their unforgiving legalisms are present in fanatics of every stripe — those who do not let empathy, experience, or intuition tell them anything in their pursuit of a twisted form of purity. In his profound and informative books, McGilchrist does not draw back from comparing Jacobins and Bolsheviks to inquisitors and “fundamentalist” iconoclasts, Puritans of every stripe, political or religious, both of whom transform a series of propositions (it is unlawful to break the Sabbath!) into rigid ideologies that profess to have all answers in all situations. They are the same people. Doubt is a part of faith, which is not, as materialists assert, a profession of belief without evidence, but a way of knowing aimed at understanding, based on intuition and experience, which is also evidential. We had better doubt ourselves and reject legalistic, bureaucratic certainty if we are to remain humane beings capable of mercy.


The Christian message was delivered at a time when feuding, legalism, tribal morality, harsh punishment, and the cruel hands of distant empires held sway in the world. Jesus’ appeal to reject vengeance, to quash anger, to temper justice with mercy, to forgive, and to change the world one soul at a time; to cease dividing the world into strict categories of friend and foe; to tame the instinct for dominance and the impulses so destructive to individual lives and to societies, greed, lust, egotism and all the harm that comes with them, simply makes sense. It has the ring of truth, and of truth as the basis for understanding. 

Yes, it requires a leap of faith. We can’t prove it any more than dreamy materialists can prove or present any hard evidence for a reality that is a “multiverse.” We proceed from a different set of assumptions than materialists, whose LH mode of cognition suppresses any understanding of a world where two apparently contradictory truths (Is it lawful to break the Sabbath? Yes and No) co-exist. It’s an analytical mode of thinking, as useful and productive as it often is, that, unrestrained, makes for a harsh, even cruel, life made so by its lack of understanding and failure to account for paradox.

What about those pesky miracles? They immediately crash against our rationality. They are by nature contradictory, paradoxical. It’s a subject that would require an article of its own, but I’d briefly point to certain phenomena that are as old as recorded history, and that are still extant, even in a rationalistic world that rejects them. They include mystical experiences and visions, “faith” and self-healing (including the efficacy of prayer in healing), and phenomena that suggest the survival of consciousness after death, including Near-Death Experiences, Out-of-Body Experiences, and instances when young children recount the memories of deceased persons they have never met or even heard of. McGilchrist mentions some of this in his magisterial books, The Master and his Emissary, and The Matter with Things. I also highly recommend Irreducible Mindwhose lead authorEdward F. Kellyis a professor at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Kelly and his collaborators dealt with a mass of data on psychical phenomena, the mind-body problem, the possible survival of consciousness after death, and the existence of semi-autonomous personalities in the human psyche that appear capable of “possessing” individuals. They also studied savants and geniuses, who, as Kelly and company have it, have expanded the realm of their consciousness beyond its normal capabilities, suggesting a vast field of consciousness with untapped resources. As for surviving clinical death, I recommend the writings and YouTube presentations of Sam Parnia, associate professor of Medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center. An array of strange, inexplicable by rationalistic standards, phenomena exist in our world. It doesn’t prove anything specific, but rather, adds to the intuitive knowledge most of us have of something beyond a world of matter alone.

This is apart from the evidence suggesting that our universe’s coming into being was no accident, evidence compelling enough for a number of avowed atheists to change their minds. I’ve dealt with that in an earlier series of articles entitled “The God Hypothesis.” In Part IV:

Man has a deep longing for transcendence, and if the militant atheists won’t have God, they’ll manufacture their own idols, zealously adhering to their godless faith. They will insist that their militant brand of atheism is not a secularized religion, as they deny the ‘supernatural.’ Really? These are the same people who are prepared to believe in an infinite number of universes that we cannot know, that have been created no one knows how. The same people who believe that life was produced no one knows how from lifeless matter. They are people who replace God and angels with extraterrestrial beings (who they practically always attribute with advanced intelligence and creative powers; Think 2001: A Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and claim that aliens may have made us. They understand that there are unseen corners of reality (as suggested by quantum physics WA) that function in ways no one could have predicted yet they say the God hypothesis is untenable.  

The Bible is a collection of books that employs poetry, metaphor, symbolism, and historical accounts to shape a narrative about God and his relations with our world. It’s a story that is also a promise. It should be approached holistically, and when LH-possessed, latter-day Pharisees latch onto one passage or another to justify their fanatical drives, advertise their own virtues, and render their satisfying condemnations, they are committing the Pharisees’ fallacy. This does not mean that Christian virtue does not exist, or that the Ten Commandments and their analogues in other cultures do not reflect moral truth. Jesus pointed the way for us down a straight path that also allows for grace in judgment, a judgment rendered as an act of love, as creation itself was and is. Religious fanatics are of the same stuff as the post-moderns who deny there is any truth at all, because it is often difficult to pin down, opening the door to chaos and dissolution. And it is they and the elites who promote this insanity who are holding the whip hand over us today.

By their fruits you shall know them.

I’ll always wonder: What did Jesus write in the dust from which we came and to which we all will return? Maybe that discovery is part of our journey.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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