Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
the Nanty Glo in My Mind'

Word studies: Cunningness

My current reading has caused me to re-evaluate something I said in an email to the list a few months ago. Characters in dramatic presentations (novels, movies, TV series) are more interesting, I said, if they're "complicated" than if they're so "simply" drawn that they are always predictable. I think that I was also thinking at the time that "complicated" characters—people who have unknown and unexpected flaws or foibles, are more "interesting" and worth having around in real life, as well.

I knew at the time that some of the church fathers over the centuries have emphasized the virtue of "simplicity," and that it's even said that God, though a Trinity and having both temporal human and eternal divine natures, is "simple" in His being. But I must confess I didn't quite "get" it. What did it mean, first, and why was it important anyway? That's where my current reading comes in. It is Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality by Kyriacos C. Markides, a sequel to the book I've described in previous Jonals as the most important one I'd read in years, The Mountain of Silence by the same author. The sequel, like the original, is mainly about an especially gifted monk, Father Maximos who, in the years since the first book was published and the second appeared, has been elected bishop of one of the island nation of Cyprus' Orthodox bishoprics.

Apparently the word that impressed me most in the first book on Fr. Maximos was logismoi, which we discussed in some detail in 2002. But thus far, at slightly over halfway through Markides' new book, the most impressive word being defined and expounded by Fr. Maximos is "cunningness." Cunningness is a more precise word for what I was calling "complicated" in the first paragraph above. There are many allusions to the concept (using as synonyms words like "deception," "double-mindedness" and "cleverness") in the New Testament, but most of the church teaching I've been exposed to has not emphasized it as thoroughly as Fr. Maximos does, using a classic book about the spiritual life by an early church father, St. John Climacus, The Ladder, as his main reference.

Cunningness is duplicitousness or being deceptive, misleading, or misdirecting and redirecting people. "Cunning" people promote falsehoods, especially by way of false impressions more than by bold-faced lies. They redirect your attention from the question you may have raised to an answer you weren't asking for. These false impressions may range from the ever-popular "pretending to be more than what you are" to dodging direct questions when you're asked to account for your stand on things. I dare say we all engage in more of this than I, for one, would like to admit, especially now that I have been given to see it as a major spiritual failing, but I'll bet we're all thinking about now, "it sounds like politicians trying to promote themselves on news talk programs on cablenews channels while trying to avoid giving a straight answer to any question." Politics, especially, lends itself to duplicitousness, a high-falutin' word for having two positions on every question. But life in general tries to push us all into promoting our own cunnings to project false impressions about ourselves, our families, our success, our smarts, and many other aspects of our lives.

I'll look at more aspects of this next time.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy


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