Syncretism: Pearl of Great Price

Jack Weigardt is clearly the most brilliant man I have every met. He is a tragic figure in the sense that he never fulfilled his purpose or  revealed his genius except to a few who endured his tortured expressions. For 10 years, until his suicide, I spend several hours a month trying to understand his thought. At age 40 he believed he suddenly gained insight into the nature of the universe. He was knee deep in saltwater in Willapa Bay at the raw edge of the North American continent.

I was introduced to Jack by a local United Methodist minister who was worn out by Jack’s insistence that people believe and define terms the way he did in his unique cosmology.  It was a huge investment of time and energy to listen to Jack.

Normally one could write off Jack as a crackpot or at least an entertaining eccentric and there have been many on his tiny peninsula near the mouth of the Columbia River. At the local oyster shucking plant tours were conducted by a self appointed “mayor” who claimed that his long life was due to rubbing pickle juice on his body every day. This usually got a laugh from the tourists in his group. But one could not laugh so easily at Jack. He had several patents to his name that were revolutionizing the way oysters were grown. He had harnessed conditions of nature that allowed only a few oysters to survive the harsh conditions of the bay. He was able to grow millions of oysters at a time and reverse the morality rate of young “spate” by developing technologies for a hatchery system for oysters.

Jack was a third generation oyster farmer. Shortly after the Civil War in the 19th century, Jack’s grandfather moved north from the San Francisco to a bay north of the mouth of the Columbia River. The Willipa Bay was a natural estuary, a place where fresh and salt water mix. The tides are perfect for shellfish in that the outflowing tides cleans the bay and the incoming tides bring rich nutrient water to feed the filter feeding shellfish.

Jack grew up in a hardworking but privileged family. He attended Stanford University and finished his undergraduate work at Willamette University. He returned home and entered the family business with his cousins. Jack was more interested in research than in making money selling oysters so his cousins bought out Jack and leased his oyster lands. This gave Jack the money to invent and build systems that impacted the oyster industry around the world. Jack went bankrupt after a few years. He and his wife by this time had six children. It is at this time at age 40 that Jack had his revelation and it is about the time I met him.

At first I was an enthusiastic supporter of Jack. We traveled together to met academics and people who seemed to have similar ideas. We met philosophers, psychologists scientists, and writers. These encounters always ended in a friendly handshake and promises to keep in touch but these promises were never fulfilled. Jack made the price too high. Most of these scholars like James Hildegard (scientist), Robert McAffee Brown (theologian), Arthur Voobus (linguist), John F. Kennedy University academic deans, a student of Buckminister Fuller, Seminary teachers in Chicago, and many other thinkers and dreamers. All had vested interests and academic reputations. Jack had invented (he would say received) a cosmology of the universe. Jack could not compromise and insisted that his definitions had to be accepted. As I learned more about Jack I began to see that he had been broken by a domineering mother. She was a school teacher and saw Jack as her brightest jewel and also an extension of herself. He rebelled against her in every conversation when presenting his ideas. It was his form of control and conquest.

Still, after a few years of dialogue with Jack and watching this degeneration of his personality I still believed that he had made a critical perception about the cosmology of  the universe. I saw it especially when I read Douglas Hofstader’s Pulitzer Prize winning book in 1980. Hofstader is a second generation Pulitzer Prize winner. He wrote:

“My belief is that the explanation of emergent phenomena in our brains…for instance ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will…are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level.” [Ibid, p. 709]

The above quote likens Strange Loops to a spiral in which at ever expanding higher levels, there exists the capability to suck-up continuing information input from the bottom, more basic level. And, as previously mentioned, these Strange Loops can also be compared to a feedback cycle of continual enfoldment and unfoldment.

This is exactly what Jack had seen a decade earlier in his research into living systems: specifically oyster growing systems. Jack would often take a glass of water and drop some sand in it. As the sand settled on the bottom he would take a spoon and dip it in the water and stir at first slowly and then faster. Gradually the sand would lift up from the bottom and rise in a spiral shape. Jack would point out that there were two spirals and if one looked closely one could see a downward spiral descend with increasing force of the stirring spoon. A second spiral would rise lifting up the sand with it. Jack refused to call this an analogy. He saw this as the actual mechanism of the universe, human thought, and even the action of God in the cosmos. Of course this cosmology was much more complicated in it’s expression in all things from growing oysters to the theology of the Bible. What was impressive about Jack’s thinking is that this cosmological construct was the tool he used to create his innovative and transformative ways of growing oysters.

I also saw in Douglas Hofstader’s insight into strange loops and the use of analogy as the key to understanding human consciousness and as a perfect parallel to Jack’s discovery. Unfortunately Jack  could never accept these comparisons by me or any of the people we consulted over the years. He could not accept these comparisons as praise and affirmation of his perception. In the end I arranged for Jack to meet with a psychiatrist twice. He always backed out at the last minute just as he did many times when I arranged critical meetings and lectures for him. Jack committed suicide at age 55. I called his home minutes after the act. His wife Carol was stunned and wanted to know what to do. I called 911 and later in the week conducted the funeral at the local United Methodist church where I first met him 15 years earlier.

It has been more than 20 years since Jack’s death but I have thought about his insights into human consciousness and universal concepts at the heart of existence. I have also read and reread Hofstader’s book Goedel, Escher, Bach: and Eternal Golden Braid. Recently I have returned to”thinking about thinking” since I have been researching Syncretism in the Tang Dynasty: the phenomenon of connecting ideas in endless iterations of enfoldment and unenfoldment. It reminds me once again of the endless hours studying with Jack and staring into the watery spirals in a simple drinking glass on Jack’s kitchen table.

I have seen the enfoldment and iteration in the power of analogy in my study of the Tang Dynasty. If we take the stories of Jesus  in the sense that it a large universal pattern or analogy of a dying and rising god we find an emerging pattern developing in the figure of  Lu Dong Bin, an itinerant poet and preacher of the Tang Dynasty. I saw a kind of “strange loop” forming in the way Lu Dong Bin is transformed into a mythic figure. Like Jack’s twin spirals acting in a kind of loop the stirring stories of Jesus create a pattern that works back on the life story of Lu Dong Bin. He becomes a “Jesus” figure of the Tang Dynasty. By seeing the action of the Jesus story which was new and exciting in the Tang Dynasty, Taoists redacted the story of Lu Dong Bin (a mere moral) and changed him into a god and the pantheon of the eight immortals.

In the same way the story of Mary during the Tang Dynasty, icon of compassion, finds an analogy in Guan Yin when Christians arrive in China. The pattern of Marian ideation is re-iterated in the Guan Yin which changes the cosmic and universal pattern in both Mary and Guan Yin in each re-telling as each story merges and reprograms the other.

If we follow the thinking of Hofstader he would call this a strange loop. An iterated pattern extends into the environment and gathers new input which foldsback upon itself and re-programs the original pattern or loop. The action is repeated in an endless series of iterations of an ever growing and changing loop. Like Jack’s rising watery whirlwind lifted by the power of the three-dimensional stirring pattern that descends to meet it, form and meaning merge into a swirl of ever changing patterns.

Syncretism of ideas, religions, sciences, and the arts during the Tang Dynasty fuse together by a fundamental pattern we find at all levels of nature. From the entanglement of atoms that relate in a field of curved space to the growing of oysters in the vortexes of tides, all consciousness moves toward a constant process of interration receiving ever new input folding back onto itself.

Douglas R. Hofstadter, GOEDEL, ESCHER, BACH: AN ETERNAL GOLDEN BRAID, Vintage Books, 1979

About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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