Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tucker Callaway

He and his wife were missionaries to Japan for years. Then they moved to Liberia, where I met them.

He was a large man, with exotic paraphernalia and habits. He brought a Zen bell from Japan, and told me he wanted to use it as a doorbell. It was a wonderful small bell—the tone persisted for over 90 seconds (I timed it), but when he hung it near the door someone hit it too hard and cracked it.

I remember visiting their house once and seeing a book on Tarot on the table. That seemed odd for Baptist missionaries, but he explained that his wife had read The Greater Trumps and, interested in learning more about the subject, had picked up a book and a deck. The Greater Trumps was a nondescript hardcover on his shelf, and I thought no more about it.

Shortly after that my parents got hold of a book reviewing the works of three authors, one of whom (Charles Williams) was previously unfamiliar to me. I was curious now, and asked Tucker to lend me one.

He said they were books dear to his heart and lent freely. Naturally I read all seven, and surprisingly enough “spoilers” in the book review did not spoil the fascination of the books, which I still enjoy.

He told me he envied me the joy of reading them for the first time, and then recommended Treasure Island. I told him I’d read that one long before.

He was exploring a theory of radical pacifism, and on one walk was talking with me about an idea in which one would try to show love to an attempted murderer by trying to keep him from murder by assisting him, thereby removing some of his guilt. I think he was a little disappointed by my response. I suspect I’ve always been more of an experimentalist than a theorist, and the notion didn’t seem to satisfy a “sanity check.” I’m quite a bit older now, and I hope a little wiser. I still think he was wrong.

He held no grudge, and asked me to proofread a book of his: Zen Way, Jesus Way. In retrospect I think I probably didn’t do a careful job: I was too fascinated discovering the subject to think “line by line.” Zen was a whole new way of looking at the world, and Tucker did a careful and sympathetic job of describing it.

After the review, we talked about it for a while. I offered to disprove it and he to defend it. I lost, of course: Zen forms a consistent approach to the world and isn’t subject to mathematical disproof. But price you pay for essentially saying that everything is illusion is that you are also illusion: there is not even an I to suffer illusion. In a sense you explain the whole world and lose your own soul.

It’s a little like that “trivial metric” I described earlier. It satisfies the criteria, but there’s no room for any sort of detailed map—the terrain is trivial. It is like Chesterton’s narrow circles of the madman’s thought. I gather from a somewhat angry review of the book that Zen as actually lived by non-monks includes some other aspects, including ethics, but these seem to be brought in by the back door, so to speak. Which isn’t surprising—only hermits can live by the unalloyed principles of illusion.

I left to go to college, and lost touch with Dr. Callaway. I understand his unorthodox approaches got him into a little trouble: his idea of a living parable jarred with the themes of Liberian culture. He should have run his ideas past somebody else first.

Before he died he wrote the framework of a book on Islam, but when his daughters looked at the floppies after his death they found he’d erased it. I remember feeling some loss about that—I’d have been interested in reading what he had to say. But it probably wouldn’t have been as insightful as his book on Zen. He spent years immersed in Japanese culture and studying the religion; not so much with Islam.

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