Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Thoreau's Prophetic Myopia

A recent article by Kathryn Shulz in the New Yorker, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia" has some great things to say about self-styled prophets and prophecy. I quote the following:

"One may reach good ends by bad means, and Thoreau did. ‘Not a particle of respect had he to the opinions of any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself,’ Emerson wrote of Thoreau. He meant it as praise, but the trouble with that position—and the deepest of all the troubles disturbing the waters of ‘Walden’—is that it assumes that Thoreau had some better way of discerning the truth than other people did.

"Thoreau, for one, did assume that. Like his fellow-transcendentalists, he was suspicious of tradition and institutions, and regarded personal intuition and direct revelation as superior foundations for both spiritual and secular beliefs. Unlike his fellow-transcendentalists, he also regarded his own particular intuitions and revelations as superior to those of other people. ‘Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men,’ he wrote in ‘Walden,’ ‘it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.’

"Claiming special guidance by the gods is the posture of the prophet: of one who believes himself in possession of revealed truth and therefore entitled—even obliged—to enlighten others. Thoreau, comfortable with that posture, sneered at those who were not. (‘They don’t want to have any prophets born into their families—damn them!’) But prophecy makes for poor political philosophy, for at least two reasons.

"The first concerns the problem of fallibility. [Here Schulz addresses Civil Disobedience and the claim of conscience. But what if society is right and one’s conscience is wrong? How can you decide between them? This requires some standard of governance beyond private conscience.] It is the point of democracy to adjudicate among such conflicting claims through some means other than fiat or force, but Thoreau was not interested in that process.

"Nor was he interested in subjecting his claims to logical scrutiny. And this is the second problem with basing one’s believes on personal intuition and direct revelation: it justifies the substitution of anecdote and authority for evidence and reason. The result, in ‘Walden,’ is an unnavigable thicket of contradiction and caprice. . . . To reject all certainties but one’s own is the behavior of a zealot; to issue contradictory decrees based on private whim is that of a despot. . . . [Thoreau is a man whose spirit resembles no one but] Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, elitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. . . . [‘Walden’ is] a book about how to live that says next to nothing about how to live with other people."

Monday, October 12, 2015

Poland's Cardinal Wyszyński on [Savage] Capitalism

"A new religion: money and wealth. Its dogmas: unlimited economic freedom, free competition, the division of capital and labor, its mercenaries are the laws of supply and demand and price mechanisms. Its morality: the lack of any moral superiority of human capital and labor or good production. Profits are its only good deeds. Its altars: a great plant, machinery, tools, cartels, syndicates, banks, where greed is satisfied by the price of human life. The final goal: blessed be the rich. Be rich at all costs, whoever can, and as soon as they can! This is the god of this world, a hurried capitalism. From now on all the world will encounter will be associated with that system because ‘abyss calls to abyss.'" ~ Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

A Note From Class: Can We Say Anything About God?

Dear Friends,

Based on your correspondence since my last post, clearly, we have a lot to talk about.

In our last class, you wanted to talk about several things: (1) the scroll and the codex, (2) Egyptian deities, (3) the New Testament as a collection or cabinet of books--and we started learning those books in order, and (4) genre.

These may seem quite scattered, but I assure you that they are not. These and other subjects join hands around the same center, which is the triune God revealed in the prophetic word, the Bible ("He has spoken through the prophets"). Like servants attending a king seated in his throne room, some are lowly workers while others are important judges and generals. Yet they all look toward the same face.

I've attached a photo of a leaf from one of the earliest bits of the New Testament that we have. It is the opening page of the letter (epistle) of 2 Corinthians (Corinthians B in the photo). You can tell that it was part of a codex because you can see the holes from the woven binding on the left-hand side of the page. You can also see that the "paper" is made of pressed papyrus leaves, as the stringy vegetable bits hang out where the page has been ripped or has gone missing.

It is part of the rich store of pages (and sometimes whole copies) from the Bible that have come down to us from cultures and languages all over the world. Together, they tell us something about the Our we talked about: the Our of "Our Father." We do not pray alone, nor are we the first to do so. We join untold numbers of others--a great family--who are invited to address God as Father.

Remember how I said C. S. Lewis described the church "spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners"? Or notice how John of Patmos describes the church in his vision, "Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (That whole reference is worth looking up, Revelation 7.9-17.)

That is the beautiful and forever fellowship that we are about. But such visions are certainly not what we see with our eyes.

Going back to C. S. Lewis again, the "terrible army" spectacle of the church is invisible to us. As Lewis, in his book The Screwtape Letters, has a senior devil say:

It is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided.
Interestingly enough, we are running parallel with the problem we talked about in my last post to you: the problem of knowing a word but not knowing its meaning. The church, says Lewis, looks like the face of the local grocer and the people one has so far avoided, even while it is really that innumerable multitude that no one can number.

Things are rarely what they seem to be on the outside. A boring, tired teacher at your school turns out to be a lover of the mystery of math who felt called as a young woman to help kids see that beautiful thing that she sees. That wrinkled, bad-breath-afflicted uncle in your family that no one talks to once took on German tanks and infantry in the Battle of the Bulge. Or, scientifically speaking, things--you, me, rocks, trees--are mostly made of empty space. We're all, from the perspective of the Earth's axis, standing sideways.

Language both helps us and harms us in solving problems like this. We use language to describe nouns and verbs like tear and tear. But the bare words don't tell us which one is salty with grief. Language has its limits--and homonyms like light, letter, book, and duck demonstrate that. And what about cleave? Are we chopping something into pieces or joining together till death do us part? We must use language, but we can't always trust it.

So consider the theological problem of language. Poets, authors, explorers, and scientists may struggle to find just the right word for the right thing. But what if that thing is by definition indescribable? What if that thing is a person and more than person? What if we want to talk about God?

People are so free to talk about God. They run everywhere saying this and that about God and no one gives it a thought. We hear it so much--and especially in the south--that we get used to it. But this is a real problem. Severe even.

How can a creature talk about a creator? How can the limited talk about what is, by nature, unlimited? How can mortals grasp the immortal? Do you get what I'm saying here?

Skipping ahead: nevertheless, we do it. We talk about God. So given that, how do we know we're saying anything true? What gives us the confidence to say things about God using a thirteenth-century language like English and then act like we've done something? I hope you are getting this.

Let's get even more practical. Ministers--think of the ones you know--have jobs that require them to say things about God and on God's behalf. How can they do this? How do we know they aren't lying? How do they know they aren't misrepresenting God? And why should we listen to them? It stands to reason that everyone the world over who claims to speak for God isn't telling the truth. Someone is lying or self-deluded. So how do we know whom to listen to and whom to ignore?

The Greeks struggled with this problem. One of their solutions was to imagine their gods as human beings but bigger. Their gods, like Zeus and Hera, Poseidon and Aphrodite, argued and squabbled like superhuman babies.

It was a solution that didn't fly for long, even for the Greeks. Philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle, along with other educated people of their time, made fun of this kind of thinking. "You can't just blow human beings up like big balloons and say you've made a god!" they said.

Closer to our time, a German atheist named Ludwig Feuerbach said that Christians do the same thing. He said the God of the Bible is but the outward projection of human desires upon the clouds. We, like little children, imagine the parent or friend that we want and call it god. Of course, he used fancy, nineteenth-century language: "In the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature."

Certainly, atheism is a popular answer in our day to the problem of talking about God, "god talk" for short. Atheism takes a big pair of scissors and cuts any notion of God or gods or the supernatural or transcendence completely away. No more "gods" means no more god talk problem. Now then, what's for lunch?

But, I'm going on too long. Allow me one more subject: genre (pronounced /JHAN-ruh/). Whenever we take in information, we have to first figure out what genre we're working with. If we are going to listen to orchestral music, then we expect woodwinds and stringed instruments and forms like the sonata and the waltz. If electronica, then samplers and mixers and a laser-light show. I like going to the movies to see films in certain genres, like superhero movies or science fiction.

When we are in a certain genre, we expect certain things and not other things. In a comic book, I expect Iron Man. I do not expect the periodic table of elements, though the latter makes sense in a chemistry textbook.

Figuring out what sorts of ideas or actions (e.g. car chases, ghosts, tables of dates) go with each genre is important. It helps us know how to make sense of what is going on. It makes communication clear. The phrase "home run" is meaningless outside of the genre of baseball.

The New Testament, as I said, is a big cabinet of books, as is the whole Bible. Not all of those books are written in the same genre. Acts is a history, but James is not; James is a good, Jewish sermon. Hebrews is also a sermon. Revelation is a fancy genre called apocalyptic. (More on that another time.) Paul's writings, which make up most of the New Testament, are epistles, that is letters. The gospels are not history like Acts is.

Knowing the genre of something, be it some written text, a movie, a song, or any kind of communication, is almost as important for understanding as is knowing the language it is written or spoken in. Genre is important!

Okay, then: I've raised some big questions in this epistle and given few answers. I do have answers, yes. But knowing, trusting, and following Jesus isn't a matter of checking the right boxes. So we will get around to some answers, but me giving you answers doesn't make you better disciples. Nor does having questions--often deep and difficult questions--and carrying those questions around for years and years make you less true disciples of Jesus and beloved sons and heirs of God.

How else do you get wisdom? Why does the Bible encourage us again and again to seek it, to quest for it, to dig and wrestle and search for wisdom? It wouldn't do this if wisdom were easy, or if the goal of being a Christian is to be a questionless drone.

My sons, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, Turning your ears to wisdom and applying your hearts to understanding, And if you call out for insight and cry out for understanding, And if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for buried treasure, Then you will understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom, and from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:1ff)
In the next letter, I hope to do more on the Lord's Prayer, and I hope to have St. Theresa of Avila help me do it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Note From Class: Hallowed

Dear Friends,

Last week we began our class saying the Lord's Prayer, also called the "Our Father" and, in Latin, the Pater Noster /PAY-ter NAHS-ter/. (Please note that I list various names and the Latin name because you do sometimes run into them, and it is helpful to know that they all refer to the same thing.)

We discovered that there are words in the Lord's Prayer that need defining. And this makes sense because anytime you step into a new or special community, and the church is certainly that, you'll run into new clusters of words. In school, for example, when you start learning a new subject, you will see that there are always new words to learn.

A friend of mine, nervous because he was a new teacher, once asked me if he thought his students were learning anything. I asked him, "Are their vocabularies changing?" New words give us better tools for understanding and talking about our ideas. That is why new ideas and new words usually go together.

Now that I think about it, though, there is a more common issue that arises concerning new words. Sometimes new words are old words. What I mean is that we have learned a word--perhaps we heard someone use it, or we read it somewhere--but it is an empty container for us: we don't actually know what the word really means.

The twentieth century author George Orwell had a few strong things to say about this sort of thing, which we are all guilty of. He said it is "ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish" and that a sloppy understanding and use of words "makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Or, like a good cook might say, good ingredients make for good food; bad ingredients, not so much.

It is the work of a lifetime to pay attention to words. It is like exploring a vast, underground cave. Sometimes you wriggle through a hole and come out into awe and beauty. Other times, things can be boring or unpleasant, or even dark and scary.

So the word before us is the word hallowed as in "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name."

The first use of hallowed as we know it occurs before the twelfth century. Before that, going back into Old English and other Germanic languages, we find words like halgian, heiligen, and halagon, to make holy, to honor, to set aside as special or for a special purpose. Behind those words are Greek and Hebrew words: the Hebrew word is quodesh /koe-DESH/ and the Greek word is hagios /AH-yee-ohs/. These words refer to generally the same idea, the idea of separateness. Something or someone is separated out, made special, and set apart for some role or task.

In Irish legend, the hero Tuatha de Danaan possessed four treasures which were called hallowed or holy. These treasures were the Spear of Lugh, the Stone of Fal, the Sword of light, and the Dagda's Cauldron. They were set apart as special.

In the Harry Potter world, three objects, the Cloak of Invisibility, the Resurrection Stone, and the Elder Wand are called hallowed because they are objects that are very special and set apart in that world.

All Hallows Eve, from which we get Halloween, uses the word hallow, because it has to do with the saints, or those who are set apart as special examples to us of what it can look like to live a life in pursuit of and saturated with God.

So when we pray the Lord's Prayer, we are asking God to do something--to hallow his name. That means we are asking him, by his power working in the world, to set apart and make special his name, that is his reputation and authority. We ask God to make his name respected and honored in our world, just as it is in heaven. This is one of three things we ask God to do right in the first part of the prayer in a sequence that brings together God's heaven and our everyday earth.

Remember, we are asking God to do it. This is not something we can do. It is a request, such as one might make to a king or to an important figure or, more normally, to a parent.

And how does he do it? By putting his name in the throats of men and women from all nations who together will hallow it. This includes we who are praying this prayer. So let's be careful that as we pray for God to hallow his name, we are hallowing it as well in our hearts and in our lives.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Really Bad English Version of the Joint Declaration of German Protestant Churches on the Refugee Crisis

The following is a Google Translate version of a six-point declaration issued and signed September 14, 2015, by the German Protestant churches.

"How precious is your steadfast love, O God, that human children have trust in the shadow of your wings!" (Psalm 36.8)

1. God loves all his creatures and gives them food , livelihood, and housing on this earth. We note with concern that millions of people are denied these good gifts of God by hunger, persecution, oppression, and violence. Many of them are on the run, and stand at the gates of Europe and Germany. To welcome these and to grant them those things that God has allotted to all is a commandment of humanity and, for us, a commandment of Christian responsibility.

2. People are at the center of all efforts. Many people worldwide are on the run. The great challenge for each individual is to do what is just. In desperation and in mortal danger, people go on the run. It is humanitarian duty to do everything possible for people who are obviously in distress, whether at sea or on land. Police must act against inhuman traffickers and mafia-like structures within and outside Europe. Indeed, the largest barrier that stops asylum-seekers is legal access routes to Europe. We therefore call for legal means for Asylum seekers and for an open discussions on immigration law in order to establish new, open immigration routes for people looking for work and a better life.

3. Our society is facing a major challenge, but our forces are large . We are grateful for the diversity of help: from volunteers and professionals, help from the church, civil society, government, and politics. These demonstrate a welcoming culture and display an unprecedented commitment to ensure the rapid and decent reception and accommodation of refugees. We thank all wholeheartedly! With decisiveness we oppose all forms of xenophobia, hatred, or racism and are against everything a misanthropic attitude supports or makes acceptable. Worry and fear of exposure must be taken seriously, but we should not indulge misanthropic moods.

4. As a church, we help to create this society. Therefore, we advocate and practice a welcoming culture. And we make integration a central task of our communities and institutions.

5. With concern we see the background and causes of refugee movements: climate change, wars, persecution, the collapse of states, violence, extreme poverty. And our society does not escape, because we are global. We trade globally. We participate in arms sales. And, last but not least, we are deeply implicated by a lifestyle that uses the earth's resources. It is time to reverse this unjust situation.

6. Here in Germany, we are especially aware of our history. We know what a gift it is to find help and open doors in time of need. Without the aid, which comes from our hearts as well, we would not be in a position today to help others. As church leaders, we wish to commit ourselves with all Europe to act together to fulfill our humanitarian obligations.

In the knowledge that people have found refuge under God's wings, we bring the plight of all people in our prayers to God and ask Him for strength for the tasks that lie ahead.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Make Room for Beauty (Beauty Makes a Man)

Make room for beauty. It is not something we typically do. There are many reasons for this. We all lead busy lives from Tiger cubs on up to the oldest adult. We are distracted. And we are over-advertised. There are too many fireworks, too many explosions. And increasingly it is all simulated.

So I want to address all you men for a moment, whether you are one or are going to be one, and say this: Many voices tell us that manhood has no place for beauty. But is that true? Let's ask a few men:

Listen to Apollo 14 moonwalker Ed Mitchel describing what it is like to see the earth-rise from the moon:

"Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.

Or let's hear from President Teddy Roosevelt, a soldier and a bullfighter among other things, writing from a ranch in the American southwest:

"Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset filled the west."

And in another place he says, "Wild flowers should be enjoyed unplucked where they grow."

And finally, a word from the nineteenth-century Yosemite explorer and naturalist John Miur:

"All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God's eternal beauty and love."

These men, men who knew risk and hardship, living, working, acting men, are overcome by beauty, and especially the beauty of the natural world.

And with them, I urge you to make room for beauty in your lives. Why?

Because (1) Beauty opens the soul

When we are caught--arrested--by beauty "when lengthening shadows merge into one and a red sunset fills the west," we see things in new ways. Our soul is widened. We suddenly see ourselves, with all of our busy things, as small. We are hushed about ourselves. Humbled.

Simultaneously, we see the horizons of our lives and those of our friends in a new light. Where once was ugliness or hatred or ignorance, we begin to see flowers growing. We approach all in a new way, remembering that "wild flowers should be enjoyed unplucked where they grow."

Why else should we make room for beauty?

Because (2) beauty begets beauty.

You don't go away from beauty unchanged, but altered. Beauty doesn't step into the same man twice. It baptizes our hearts. It leaves our lesser man behind and makes us greater.

It is interesting to me that if you look at any skill or tool or invention that people have made, it grows more beautiful over time. Consider a simple hammer, manufactured and available for a few dollars from a store. We began with flint stones worked and chiseled, but stones nonetheless. Now have hammers shaped and manufactured from hard-steel and fit for their purpose. It is the smallest example of what is everywhere around us. We take in beauty and we give it back in what we do and make.

Now a final reason we should make room for beauty.

We should make room for beauty because (3) beauty makes room for God.

Again to quote John Miur,

"No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening--still all is Beauty!"

Beauty is not God, but it has often been the doorkeeper to God's house. And if we are honest with ourselves about our hearts and our lives, we crave admittance. The Boy Scout Law and the Scout Oath mention reverence for God for a reason. Could it be because beauty is not unmanly, but, rather, because making room for Beauty--and for God--makes a man.

Could it be because beauty is not unmanly, but, because making room for Beauty--and for God--makes a man.

Address delivered September 12, 2015, for the Cub Scouts of Pack 125 at Cedars of Lebanon State Park.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Creation, soteriology, and the "problem" of the two Adams

I am not concerned with the problem of a first Adam. The fact is, we have no idea what creatio ex nihilo is (see also Karl Jaspers on Creation). We, as the created, only know creatio ex materia. Resurrection is the same way. We think we know what it is, but we really have no more idea than we do about creation. We only know the result, the what, but not the how. We know that resurrection is not reanimation and creation is not reworking some pliable, neutral, and everlasting material. God is not a thing among things, but we are.

Similarly, why does evolution present a problem? God creates from nothing, an act that does not preclude an infinity of changing somethings. The universe may stretch back into the forever, expanding and changing, hissing and sparking out world after world like a firecracker held in the dark. This is not a problem: an infinity of changing somethings is not a from nothing. Evolution is just a closer view of some long length of something. Flesh may change, but it does not create flesh from nothing at all.

I tend to think that evolution is soteriological gift. It tells us that human beings are a piece with all of creation--that we are of the same stuff as everthing else. It tells us that the human being, the imago Dei, Jesus, assumed all flesh and so redeemed all flesh: soteriology is ecology; ecology, soteriology. In the resurrected flesh of Jesus all creation hopes. The us among whom God tabernacled includes the rocks that cry out and the trees that clap their hands.

Finally, for the sake of further thinking (and this is very speculative now), I would like to consider the existence of Adam and Even in parallel with the election of God. Even as Jesus set himself apart, so his people are set apart in him. The imago Dei as something graciously received from and through and because of Jesus. Adam and Eve become the beginning of those people in time, the first of the elect and also representatives of elect humanity to come. Therefore, perhaps the language of "fall" is unhelpful. Humanity is made good, but still vulnerable. (I'm thinking of the language of Augustine and human creation in a state of innocence.) Elected humanity can then b made perfect in him ("Be perfect because he is perfect."), though as gold is purified through fire.

Note also the interesting, tri-fold distinction of God's creating activity outlined in Mark Harris's The Nature of Creation. Harris understands the creation texts in scripture to describe the relationship of God with the world. Creation out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo, is “best expressed as a statement of God’s transcendence.” Continuous creation, creatio continua, “is most clearly an expression of God’s immanence.” God is in intimate relationship with humans and the rest of creation. Creation from the old, creatio ex vetere, (Harris's innovative addition) “is fundamentally a descriptive term for God’s redemptive activity in creation (186). Creation from the old is clearly connected with the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrected body is in a discernible continuity with the pre-death body plus something new as well: “more than the resuscitation of a corpse.” Still, Harris sees examples of creation from the old in other texts and situations also.

These three aspects of creation are simplifications and should not be separated rigorously.

God’s work of creation ex nihilo, continua, and ex vetere are not three different actions, but one creative action, while at the same time they point to the diversity and diversity of the unitary God. It is no accident that this is reminiscent of Trinitarian language of God – three in one and one in three – for it was through observations such as these, of God’s diverse work in the theatres of creation and redemption, that the three persons of the Trinity came to be recognized and distinguished as such. But the three categories of creative work are not to be identified with the three persons of the Trinity; rather it is distinctions such as these that have been important in the development of Trinitarian thinking. (187)

Friday, May 08, 2015

Sometimes All You Need is Permission

Sometimes all you need is permission. You have done the hard work. You have asked the questions and assembled the data. But, for some reason, concluding remains elusive. Maybe what is missing is permission.

Permission came for me in the words of Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. In the March edition of First Things, Hart wrote a column entitled "Reason's Faith" critiquing smug rationalism. And with it he helped me own the pieces of a puzzle I've been working on for ten years (a process attested in the history of this blog).

Hart's point is that the sharp divide between reason (ratio) and faith (fidei) is a modern experiment gone wrong. He calls the division a "tarnished relic of the seventeenth century." And its result remakes human reason as a faculty divorced from all assumption "dispassionate and disinterested." But this is wrong.

"All reasoning," says Hart, "begins from a venture of trust whose truthfulness can be ascertained only at the end of the sequence of postulates and predicates and judgment to which it gives rise." As I read this, I think of David Hume taking arrogant reason to task for too closely wedding cause and effect. Hart goes on to say why he can make this assertion.

Every assertion he says assumes a metaphysic in which the mind and the world connect and are true to one another. Enlightenment reason cannot boast this connection.

The materialist by force of will ignores his own assumptions, choosing to focus instead on the practical utility of every question. Who cares why it works. It works. And that it works becomes the all in all. The context from which the question arises eventually ceases to be noticed. Consider this comment from physical chemist Dr. Peter Coveney: "In modern biology and medicine today you would find most people not even trying to think in theoretical terms. . . What we call "Baconian theory' says, don't worry about a theoretical underpinning, just make observations, collect data, and interrogate the data." Hart calls this a true fideism. "The unyielding rationalist turns out to be the most irrational fideist of all: one who believes in reason even though there cannot possibly be any reason for that belief." With Bacon, Descartes project is similarly framed. The self is trusted to posit reality from its own foundations, an attempt at faith from below. It was only a short path to rational idealism, to Hegel, and the nihilism of postmodernity. "Without that original trust, that spiritual commitment, reason is not reason at all, but the purest irrationality."

The worldview that preceded the Enlightenment, the Medieval mind, was more integrated. It could wed mind and world and so posit truth because, behind mind and world it understood the unity and oneness by the one God.

Hart's critique of ascendant reason looks not only to the assumed metaphysic, but also appeals to natural selection. This is a move I've written about before, in that case employed by Alvin Plantinga. I think it is a devastating critique. It is simply this: if the human mind evolves, then how can we trust it to guarantee knowledge? Put another way: how can we trust reason if it is but another evolved faculty?

This is where I think theistic evolution is another fancy way of saying God made the world. The Medieval mind understood that God's unity was necessary to secure truth as the product of particulars embedded in a cosmos. The theist post-Darwin has to evoke God's triune plurality as well to ground mission, action, change--eschatology.

So then, I've had all of these pieces scattered around, but the confidence to finally--once and for all--to put them together was lacking. No longer. I'm willing to say that reason and faith are one because God's logos made the world in wisdom. I'm willing to suffer the charge of fideism and supernaturalism and the suspicion of anti-intellectualism or just plain naivete.

See also:

Friday, April 17, 2015

Three ways physicists understand the physical universe

"Ten years after Einstein completed his theories, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger invented quantum mechanics, describing the behavior of atoms and light-quanta in a radically different way. Experiments confirmed that quantum mechanics gives a true picture of atomic processes that Einstein’s theories could not explain. Niels Bohr worked out a philosophy, generally known as the Copenhagen interpretation, to explain quantum mechanics. I prefer to call it the dualistic philosophy, since it describes the universe as consisting of two layers. The first layer is the classical world of Einstein, with objects that are directly observable but no longer predictable. They have become unpredictable because they are driven by events in the second layer that we cannot see. The second layer is the quantum world, with states that are not directly observable but obey simple laws. For example, the laws of the second layer decree that every particle travels along every possible path with a probability that depends in a simple way on the path.

"The two layers are connected by probabilistic rules, so that the quantum state of an object tells us only the probabilities that it will do various things. The dualistic philosophy allows us to divide our knowledge of nature into facts and probabilities. Observation of the first layer gives us facts about what happened in the past, but only gives us probabilities about what may happen in the future. The future is uncertain because the processes in the second layer are unobservable. The power and the beauty of quantum mechanics arise from the fact that the physical laws in the second layer are precisely linear.

"All points in a linear theory are equal, and a linear space has perfect symmetry about any of its points. As a result of the linearity of the laws, the second layer possesses a wealth of marvelous symmetries that are only partially visible in the first layer. For example, in the first layer, symmetries between space and time are only partly visible. In daily life, we do not mix up inches with seconds or miles with days. In the second layer, as the result of Paul Dirac’s elegant equation describing the quantum behavior of the electron, the mixing of space with time in the electron’s movements would be clearly visible. But we do not live in the second layer, and so the mixing is hidden from us.

"The dualistic philosophy gives a natural frame for the new sciences of particle physics and relativistic cosmology that emerged in the twentieth century after Einstein and Bohr were dead. The new sciences are dominated by mathematical symmetries that are exact in the second layer and approximate in the first layer. The dualistic philosophy seems to me to represent accurately our present state of knowledge. It says that the classical world and the quantum world are both real, but the way they fit together is not yet completely understood. The dualistic philosophy is flexible enough to accept unexpected discoveries and conceptual revolutions.

"Now, eighty years after the dualistic philosophy was invented by Bohr, it is generally regarded by the younger generation of physicists as obsolete. The younger generation mostly rejects duality and accepts what I call the quantum-only philosophy. The quantum-only philosophy says that the classical world is an illusion and only the quantum world exists. The concept of a classical world arose because the effects of quantum mechanics are rapidly erased by a phenomenon known as decoherence. Decoherence hides the quantum world by destroying rapidly the waves arising from quantum effects. After the waves have disappeared, whatever is left obeys classical laws and looks like a classical world. According to the quantum-only philosophy, the marvelous harmony of Einstein’s classical universe is only an approximation, valid when quantum waves happen to be small enough to be neglected.

"To summarize the present situation, there are three ways to understand philosophically our observations of the physical universe. The classical philosophy of Einstein has everything in a single layer obeying classical laws, with quantum processes unexplained. The quantum-only philosophy has included everything in a single layer obeying quantum laws, with the astonishing solidity and uniqueness of the classical illusion unexplained. The dualistic philosophy gives reality impartially to the classical vision of Einstein and to the quantum vision of Bohr, with the details of the connection between the two layers unexplained. All three philosophies are tenable, and all three are incomplete. I prefer the dualistic philosophy because I give equal weight to the insights of Einstein and Bohr. I do not believe that the celestial harmonies discovered by Einstein are an accidental illusion."

Excerpt from Freeman Dyson, "Einstein as a Jew and a Philosopher" NYRB May 7, 2015. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/may/07/albert-einstein-jew-and-philosopher/ Accessed May 17, 2015.

Friday, January 30, 2015

meaning = structure / structure = meaning

Take a second to read this paragraph. (Yes, I know it is hard and that there are no images or movies associated.)

"The structure of a compound sentence sends certain messages to readers, no matter how you fill in the blanks. First, it tells readers that the sentence contains two relatively important ideas, each one deserving its own independent clause. Second, it tells readers that these two ideas are approximately equal in importance, since they are balanced as a pair. And third, it alerts readers to the relationship between the two ideas, depending on the connector. For example, and suggests that the two ideas are being added together, but indicates that they are being contrasted, and or tells us that they are alternatives. A semicolon suggests balance between two similar or sharply contrasting statements." (Diana Hacker and Betty Renshaw, Writing With a Voice, 2nd ed. Scott, Foresman, 1989)

Meaning dictates sentence structure. That's why it is important.

Meaning dictates structure. Structure tells you how the author understood his or her message.

Meaning dictates structure. So when you figure out what something means, you'd better not emphasize something that the structure deemphasizing (e.g. no taking your main idea from a dependent clause).

Meaning dictates structure.

Meaning dictates structure.

Find the structure; find the meaning.