Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Take Shelter and Owen Barfield

I watched Take Shelter last night and was ambiguously blown away by its ambiguous ending. I saw some connections to good ol' Owen Barfield there and wanted to put them down, even though you shouldn't read this unless 1.) You've seen Take Shelter and 2.) You have read some of Owen Barfield, and you won't be reading this unless 3.) You read this blog. That number is infinitesimal. But I still want to record these thoughts. Spoilerphobes, stop reading now!

At the end, we don't see the storm at first. We see Hannah see it, and she signs it with the word we saw her learn near the beginning of the film: "storm." Then Curtis turns and sees it. Samantha steps out and we can see the reflection of the storm in the glass. It starts to rain oil and she and Curtis exchange glances in an amazingly evocative conversation without words. Samantha says "OK." Fade to black.

Note the role of the words in that sequence. The word "storm" (unspoken even) is the communication that whether in reality or in dreams, Hannah and Samantha have entered Curtis' world of perceptions. "Storm" has moved from Curtis' own private representation to become a collective representation. And Barfield would say that means it has become real. (Wherever two or three are gathered?) They are participating in the same reality.

It is completely ambiguous whether the three are seeing reality or a delusion. I would argue that it doesn't matter (for the purposes of the film). What does matter is that it is shared: that Hannah and Samantha have entered in to Curtis's world. It is their collective reality and it is, as Samantha says, "O.K."

What a unique and unsettling film. I can tell this one will stick with me for a while.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 5: The Creative Word of God

[Back to part 4]

If it seems odd that Barfield could wait this long without mentioning the theology of the Word of God, it's only because he was saving up for this moment. Barfield's theology is tied intimately with the concept of wisdom and logos, the word by which Israel's God spoke the world into existence and the logical framework which holds it all together, instant by instant. This God, through his revealed words, gave to Israel His name, YHWH, and the Torah and Temple (think of the long passages in Exodus and the historical books describing these structures, in words). God gave speech too: Adam could name the animals, Moses spoke with God, and David spoke the psalms. In the Hebrew language Barfield hears the origin of the relationship of the heart with God, and the origin of everything, for that matter. And he has a few words about the origin of language, because he sees an active role in language of creating the human mind and therefore (remember part I) in creating the world:

p.123 “Speech did not arise as the attempt of man to imitate, master, or explain ‘nature’; for speech and nature came into being along with one another. [Remember Part 1: Nature did not exist until a mind existed that could step outside of it, and define it.] Strictly speaking, only idolators can raise the question of the ‘origin of language’. For anyone else to do so is like asking for the origin of origin. Roots are the echo of nature herself sounding in man. Or rather, they are the echo of what once sounded and fashioned in both of them at the same time.”

Barfield sees significance in the fact that Hebrew was written with consonants but not vowels, and proposes that these different kinds of sounds embody the coming together of mind and body itself (!):

p.124 “[T]he consonantal element in language [may hold] vestiges of those forces which brought into being the external structure of nature, including the body of man; and, in the original vowel-sounds, the expression of that inner life of feeling and memory which constitutes his soul. It is the two together which have made possible, by first physically and then verbally embodying it, his personal intelligence. … Suffice it to say that the Semitic languages seem to point us back to the old unity of man and nature, through the shapes of their sounds.”

So is the creation of language by the combination of vowels with consonants something like when God breathed on Adam and he became a living soul? And so it makes sense that everything was created by a word, spoken by God, that is, the Word of God:

p.125 “[T]he Jewish doctrine of the Word of God, which was at the same time the source of the phenomenal world and the incarnation of wisdom in man, is still clearly apparent in the Book of Proverbs and in the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom of Solomon. … All things came into being through the Word. This teaching of the creative Word, this last testimony to a creation which was not a mere creation of idols, and to an evolution which was not a mere evolution of idols, is one which Christian thought, thanks to the opening verses of St. John’s gospel, has never been able entirely to ignore, though it has by now come near to doing so.”

In that opening passage of the Gospel of John, this Rabbi from first-century Palestine was placed back at the moment of creation. He was there, as the Word of God and the Wisdom of the Almighty. The words of Jesus recounted in that gospel show him participating (to use Barfield's favorite word) in/with YHWH (not sure what is the right preposition to use here!):

p.169-170 “In the heart of that nation, whose whole impulse it had been to eliminate original participation, a man was born who simultaneously identified himself with, and carefully distinguished himself from, the Creator of the world – whom he called the Father. On the one hand: ‘I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me,’ etc. On the other: ‘I and the Father are one,’ etc. In one man the inwardness of the Divine Name had been fully realized; the final participation, whereby man’s Creator speaks from within man himself, had been accomplished. The Word had been made flesh.”

The words of Jesus, and especially the parables of Jesus, are saturated with allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures but also with deductions about God's nature from the natural world itself. Barfield points out how an explicit parallel is drawn in Mark between the Parable of the Sower and Isaiah 6, which shows Israel herself beset with idols and darkened in knowledge. Barfield points out that the language is similar to Psalm 135 and many of the other recitations that would be on everyone's mind, about how those who make idols become like them. These words are multi-dimensional and have not yet been exhausted in meaning. As Peter proclaimed, these are the Words of Life:

p.175-176 “Clearly [Jesus’s] whole diction was saturated with recollections of this nature [quotes of the Old Testament], even when no precise allusion can be fixed. The New Testament is, in a sense, latent in the language of the Old. ... It will be clear that, in order to understand the enigmatic words which, in the Synoptic Gospels, are interposed between the parable of the Sower and its interpretation, we must hear sounding through them as an overtone both the voice of the prophet Isaiah and the familiar voice of the Psalmist inveighing against graven images. We cannot do otherwise than to read them as alluding to idolatry.” (And I note that Paul makes frequent multi-dimensional connections to idolatry, for example, in Romans and 1 Corinthians.)

Jesus' parables have a natural feel about them, not just in content, but in their very nature. The kingdom is a generous, giving, growing thing that is alive because its king is the author of life. This king wants the world to be set right, but his way of doing that is very counter-intuitive to our darkened imaginations: he comes as a servant, as the loser of the Darwinian struggle and the one who is emptied of all life. Yet this is the seed, buried, from which life will come. These parables are as powerful as sunlight:

p.174 "[In the parables about the kingdom:] Our deep-rooted feeling for the goodness of justice and equity has to be outraged, because we are being beckoned towards a position directly opposite to the usual one; because we are invited to see the earth, for a moment at all events, rather as it must look from the sun; to experience the world of man as the object of a huge, positive outpouring of love, in the flood of whose radiance such trifles as merit and recompense are mere irrelevancies.”

When our incomplete theologies actually line up with the kingdom proclaimed in these parables, then they reflect a counter-intuitive but blazing light, communicated through the images and words that we summarize as the Trinity:

p.165-166 “In the Christian doctrine of the Trinity the Logos, or Word, is one of three Persons. The conception of a threefold nature in the Godhead is not, however, peculiar to Christianity. It is to be found also in oriental religions and is perhaps the formal principle underlying the whole complicated organism of Greek mythology. It is the depth of all theology. What is peculiar to Christianity is the nexus which that acknowledges between the Second Person of the Trinity and a certain historical event in time. For the Christian, accordingly, religion can never be simply the direct relation between his individual soul and the eternal Trinity. As long as we ourselves are occupying a standpoint in time, so long, interposed between the First and Third Persons, all history, in a manner, lies.”

“Not to realize to the uttermost the otherness of God from ourselves is to deny the Father. But equally, not to strive to realize the sameness – to renege from the Supreme Identity – is to deny the Holy Spirit.”

Barfield slowly came to Christianity because he found in the incarnate God the timeless living in time, the original paradox that is the unimaginable inspiration to the imagination. To Barfield, this fit deeply, down to the nature of thought and language itself, as the Word of God spoken into history.

Christians are called to put things together like Jesus put things together: old and new Testaments, Greek and Hebrew thought, nature and revelation. We are called to live lives of poetry and participation. The rest of this series is Barfield's ideas about how precisely we are to do that, in the light of his focus on mind, word, and language.

[Forward to Part 6]

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 4: Israel, Idolatry, and Time

[Back to Part 3.5]

Barfield next turns his attention to the ancient civilization that struggled most with idolatry, the one that had injunctions against it in their 10 basic laws and yet had a long history of worshipping images and importing statues of foreign gods into the very temple of the un-imaged God: Israel. From Abraham to Elijah, iconoclasts are an essential part of Israel’s history, and in his own campaign against idols, Barfield spends some time talking about the foundation the literature of Israel provides to his own intellectual enterprise. The story of Israel helps to clearly define the “idols” in the subtitle of the book (and brings to mind Asher Lev’s In the Beginning, with its emphasis on Abraham’s smashing of the idols):

p.110-111 “[I]dolatry may be defined as the valuing of images or representations in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons; and an idol, as an image so valued. More particularly, idolatry is the effective tendency to abstract the sense-content from the whole representation and seek that for its own sake, transmuting the admired image into a desired object. … Striking, as the Jews did, not only at the practice of idolatry, but at the whole religion of the Gentiles centred round it, their impulse was to destroy, not merely that which participation may become, but participation itself. … The idols, the Psalmist insisted, were not filled with anything. They were mere hollow pretences of life. They had no ‘within’.”

We still need this message of anti-idolatry, especially in this deist age of mechanisms within mechanisms:

p.160-161 “What the Psalmist wrote of the old idols is true no less of the idols of the twentieth century. ‘They that make them are like unto them.’ The soul is in a manner all things, and the idols we create are built into the souls of our children; who learn more and more to think of themselves as objects among objects; who grow hollower and hollower.”

Israel’s relationship with YHWH is intense but unmediated by images or idols. Barfield strikes a note here that I don’t agree with, that natural theology is utterly absent from the Old Testament, although it is interesting to think about how much natural theology is in the statements of Jesus as opposed to the Old Testament. We probably have a disagreement of emphasis rather than kind:

p.108 “If, moreover, we review the Old Testament as a whole, we shall scarcely find there suggested what we find assumed by both Aristotle and Aquinas, namely, that knowledge of God’s creation can become knowledge of God. In the Old Testament the relation of man to God is the only thing that is of any importance at all, but it has nothing to do with detailed knowledge – unless by that we mean a knowledge of the moral law.”

It's clear that striking differences can be drawn between this Jewish thought and the thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and friends. Barfield distills the differences down to the Greeks thinking in terms of space but the Jews thinking in terms of time:

p.150 “But I think it is true to say that, just as by looking back through the Greek mind, we bring to life the apprehension of form in space as an image or representation, so, by looking back through the Jewish mind, we bring to life an apprehension of form in time – that is, of events themselves, as images, whether of the past or future, or of a state of mind.”

“The second is a far more difficult achievement for us than the first. But I believe anyone who would well consider the way of experiencing Old Testament history, which is implied in the Psalms and in the Jewish liturgy, and then again in Christian art before the Reformation, would understand what I mean. To immerse oneself in the medieval Mystery plays and in those sequences and parallels between Old and New Testament, which are the very backbone, the essential formal principle of the Cathedral sculpture, is to feel that, in one most real sense, the Old Testament was lost with the Reformation.”

“For non-participating consciousness it is either, or. A narrative is either a historical record, or a symbolical representation. It cannot be both; and the pre-figurings of the New Testament in the Old, and the whole prophetic element in the Old Testament is now apt to be regarded as moonshine.”

But of course, Barfield rejects this either/or thinking and embraces the narrative as both. The people of Israel thought in terms of a grand narrative story that ran through time, and saw all the previous events of their peculiar history as pointing forward to fulfillment in a king to come, and times of suffering, and the return of God to the mountain of Zion. To talk about how it all came together, however, we have to return to Barfield's favorite subject: the nature of language and of the word itself.

[Forward to Part 5]

Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review: mr.g

There need to be more books like this, books that are hard to find in Barnes and Noble because you don't know for sure which subject they're under (in this case, science or religion). Alan Lightman is a physicist who has written basically a work of natural theology for the scientific deist. The science of the creation of the universe is nicely presented (with the expected focus on physics to the exclusion of chemistry!), but the second half of the book is almost purely theological. Lightman's god (the mr.g of the title) makes the universe and has ultimate power but not ultimate knowledge.

The joy of reading Lightman for me is that he shows what you can do when you take theology seriously, even if you don't think it all comes together in Christianity. I see this as a partial illustration of what Paul in Romans calls God's "invisible attributes" which are obvious through Creation -- but only partial, because I think if no one could actually think mr.g exists, he just doesn't add up because he is not thoroughly good. Now, mr.g is essentially a good guy but he can be kind of bumbling. Actually, the evil character Belhor who shows up necessarily after creation is much more interesting than mr.g and his screechy aunt and doughy uncle. Belhor starts with a description of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem and is wonderfully subtle (which I use in the old sense from KJV Genesis). There's a fascinating resemblance to the beginning of Job as well.

One of the reasons why I like this book so much is probably an unintended effect: to me, mr.g is very frustrating in his non-intervention, and he is not really that good when you think about it, and he really is not that generous, not that father-like, more ... uncle-like. Christian theology knows a much more interesting and worship-able God, in my humble opinion. But that's a debate for after this book is read and its theology digested. The presuppositions of deism are rife, but I'd like more deist/agnostic authors to write like this. Then we could get somewhere.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Reponding to Barfield, Part 3.5: A Poetic Interlude

[Back to Part 3]

This is about the halfway point for the Barfield series, and at this point in the book he includes a poem that summarizes his philosophy. I liked the poem and so I think it's appropriate to post it here as a summary looking back and looking forward.

REFLECTION by George Rostrevor Hamilton (1952)
When hill, tree, cloud, those shadowy forms
Ascending heaven are seen,
Their mindless beauty I from far
Admire, a gulf between;

Yet in the untroubled river when
Their true ideas I find,
That river, joined in trance with me,
Becomes my second mind.

The river is like Barfield's "participation."

[Forward to Part 4]

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 3: The Scandal of the Medieval Mind

(This is Part 3. Those new to the series should start here, and here is Part 2.)

Mark Noll wrote a very influential book in my circles titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and according to Noll, the scandal is that there IS none. Likewise, the medieval mind has been a mystery to me, and it seemed for a long time like there WAS none: why did they spend so much time thinking and writing about things that just don't seem to matter? Transubstantiation, angels on the head of a pin, scholasticism, etc. etc. etc., the medieval mind seemed like a waste of time and energy. (Of course, castles were cool, and stained glass, but beyond that I felt like history was just waiting to begin.) In Spaceship Earth (remember, I grew up near Orlando) there are only two scenes to cover the 1000 years between the fall of Rome and the Gutenberg press. Apparently my general perceptions have been shaped by EPCOT center. Which explains why I supported the ill-fated Seattle Monorail expansion project.

My first genuine academic hint that I was missing something enriching in my offhand dismissal of the medieval mind came from Planet Narnia, a book that proposed that C.S. Lewis deliberately structured the 7 books of the Chronicles of Narnia around the 7 planets of medieval astrology (review here). Then comes Barfield, and I can see the same respect for the medieval mind. Barfield thinks it's worth it to try to re-think medieval thoughts by reading the surviving words (which is not quite the same as simple translation). He points out that the very setting of the point of view, the very concept of consciousness, was different.

p.78 “Even those [today] who achieve the intellectual contortionism of denying that there is such a thing as consciousness, feel that this denial comes from inside their own skins. Whatever it is that we call our ‘selves’, our bones carry it about like porters. This was not in the background picture before the scientific revolution. The background picture then was of man as a microcosm within the macrocosm. It is clear that he did not feel himself isolated by his skin from the world outside him to quite the same extent as we do. He was integrated or mortised into it, each different part of him being united to a different part of it by an invisible thread. In relation to his environment, the man of the middle ages was rather less like an island, rather more like an embryo, than we are.”

With the word "participation" Barfield sums up the reason for the medieval connection between the moon and mining silver, and "lunacy" for that matter: a general connectedness and embeddedness that permeated the entire mind. And medieval medicine -- on the one hand, I don't want it! But on the other hand, there's a method to the medieval madness that is part of all this. Galen proposed that we had two kinds of blood (liver-made blood that carried nutrients and heart-sucked arterial blood that carried life), and in terms of the mechanics of circulation, he was flat wrong. We don't go back to that mechanism. But we still use Galen-ish terminology in talking about how a person acts, and we retain a hint of the old participation. What is good in that, what can we magnify and reassemble while keeping what we know now?

p.83 “For us … there are really two kinds of blood: the shed and the unshed; rather as for Galen there were two kinds of blood, the venous and the arterial. Both of Galen’s were participated; whereas only one of ours is. We refer to what remains of that participation when we speak, with a psychological intention, of ‘bad blood’ or ‘hot blood’. We no longer distinguish where he did. We do distinguish where he did not, polarizing the old meaning of blood into two, a metaphorical and a literal one. And our medicine interests itself almost exclusively in the literal one, that is, in the idol.”

The mystery of the medieval mind to us is that they drew the lines differently. We pull ourselves out of the system and draw lines between "me" and "the thing I see" and between "literal" and "figurative" meanings that were simply not there for the medievals. Barfield says these lines cut us off from a very real understanding of reality.

p.74 “The point I am making is that, precisely to those simple understandings, the ‘physical’ and ‘literal’ themselves were not what ‘physical’ and ‘literal’ are to us. Rather, the phenomena themselves carried the sort of multiple significance which we to-day only find in symbols. Accordingly, the issue, in a given case, between a literal and a symbolical interpretation, though it could be raised, had not the same sharpness as of contradictories.”

This thick and overlapping connectedness carried by the world itself shows up in medieval art. I've always been puzzled by why medieval art has no sense of perspective, with overlapping figures and times, and settings that were clearly local while the events were clearly first-century Palestine. My own puzzledness shows a kind of modern bigotry that should have been a hint. They saw space differently. How can someone see space differently? It's weird ... but they did. And now that physics shows us space and time are really different dimensions of the same thing, and that time passes according to the observer's speed, we're brought once again into a world in which space isn't simply a Cartesian void (I'm reminded here of when Ransom travels through space in Lewis's Space Trilogy and finds it is not a void, but a living, thriving domain.)

p.152 “The concept of space as an unlimited or three-dimensional void – a kind of extrapolated ‘perspective’ – which came in with the disappearance of participation, is still of course the ordinary man’s concept. It held good for science, too, until the end of the nineteenth century. The indications that it is now proving inadequate are so numerous that I do not need to stress them. When, for instance, we are told that space must be conceived as spherical, or asked to think in terms of a ‘space-time continuum’, we can hardly avoid the conclusion that the old, or rather the still young, ‘idol’ of infinity as ‘going on for ever’, whether in space or time, is showing unmistakable signs of strain.”

So contemplating medieval art might be able to help us understand medieval manuscripts, and how different they were from us. The degree of participation is the main difference, according to Barfield. They swam in the world, while we try to hold ourselves aloof from it.

p.94 “Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved. In such a world the convention of perspective was unnecessary. To such a world other conventions of visual reproduction, such as the nimbus and the halo, were as appropriate as to ours they are not. It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture. Compared with us, they felt themselves and the objects around them and the words that expressed those objects, immersed together in something like a clear lake of – what shall we say? – of ‘meaning,’ if you choose.”

This participation led to the medieval mania for allegory, and also for the way they depicted gods and spirits of things. Notice what Barfield talks about in the next quote. So many scientists assume that medieval or ancient people were trying to be scientists in looking at and explaining why things worked, and that they would give them spirits as a way of explaining why. Barfield would disagree with this -- not to deny the presence of gods and spirits, but rather their function, that is, to deny them roles as simply "explanatory" Rudyand-Kipling-just-so-stories. The gods and spirits were manifestations of the observer's participation in the environment and story itself, reflections of the observing consciousness, and only after that did they serve any explanatory function. Explanation was just not that high on the priority list.

p.86 “To learn about the true nature of words was at the same time to learn about the true nature of things. And it was the only way. We may reflect how the meaning of the word grammar itself has been polarized, since the scientific revolution, into the study of ‘mere’ words, on the one hand, and, on the other, into the half-magical gramarye, which altered its form to glamour and was useful for a season to the poets, before it was debased. One may reflect also on the frequent appearances made by Grammar and the other liberal arts, as persons, in medieval allegory, and how easily and naturally they mingle there with the strange figure of the Goddess Natura – at once so like and unlike the Persephone of Greek mythology. This might easily lead us into a consideration of allegory itself – a literary form which is so little to our taste, and yet was so popular and all-pervasive in the Middle Ages. It is not clear that we find allegory dessicated precisely because, for us, mere words themselves are dessicated – or rather, because for us, words are ‘mere’?”

So much allegory, so little time! But this opens up a way to read allegory and other medieval hang-ups as more alive, because the words themselves were more alive. This seems true, if only because it helps to see why they would have spent so much time on things that matter so little to us now. I also see a similarity between this and the Oswald Chambers/evangelical mode of praying continually and seeing God at work in every event, no matter how small. The world is not merely a vast machine but a creation and a gift. God is mysterious and unknowable but he has brought himself near to us. Maybe the medieval mind has something to say to us after all.

p.101 “If this kind of psychology was really as tenuous, fine-drawn, and obscure – or to use Bacon’s word, as ‘frigid’ – as it seems to most people to-day, it is difficult to explain why, for so many centuries, so many people found it exciting. The true explanation is, once more, that we have lost half the meanings of the key-words in which it is expressed."

Recovering what is lost. Is there any better theme underlying both Lewis's and Tolkien's work? It underlies Barfield's too. Barfield moves on to the Old Testament, and then to the New, and that's where we'll go next.

PS: I find it useful to include more information about what these words are that Barfield goes on about, so here's a specific example of what words may change their meanings: p.101 "Above all, with the disappearance of participation, words to do with thinking and perceiving and words to do with movement and space have parted company. Aristotle’s poiein and paschein were for him, not the insubstantial, semi-mystical abstractions which we make of them, when we translate them ‘active principle’ and ‘passive principle’. … the kinesis, to which Aristotle refers in so many different contexts, was simply not what we mean by ‘movement’ at all, who think of it as the bare change of the position of an idol in Newtonian space.”

PPS: What does this thinking mean, at the end? The Grail stories are a hint, according to Barfield: p.173 “And already, before Aquinas’ time, the startlingly sudden rise and spread throughout Europe of a rich crop of legends of the Holy Grail suggests an attempted uprush of the Eucharistic mystery from a substantially unconscious to a substantially conscious – and extra-sacerdotal – status.”

[Forward to Part 3.5]

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Review: Micro

It's kind of sad knowing this is the last Michael Crichton book I'll read, because Crichton died in 2008 and this is the second of two books to be released posthumously. This actually is one of his better books, probably because it follows the Jurassic Park formula of opening up a just-credible enough world that has so much going on that it's as much about the exploration as it is about the fights and thrills. There's the wonder of the new world along with the typical techno-driven plot. In this book, the world is the micro scale, what things would look like if you were shrunk to half an inch tall and out in the wild.

I found some of the stock Crichton characters -- especially the annoying academic that he doesn't agree with -- to be especially poorly written. Maybe he writes them badly so you like them even less? But there's some surprises to the usual formula that I liked, although they may have been added by Richard Preston when he completed the novel.

This has all the usual strengths and weaknesses of the typical Crichton novel, and the strength of its premise puts it high on the list, probably of the top 5 Crichton novels of all time. There's one BIG problem with the underlying scientific premise that he never explains (and is particularly annoying to a biochemist), even though a character actually articulates it, so I had hope that it would be revealed at the end, but it's not, and I think ... it's better if you know that going in. Or you can wait for the inevitable movie.

Rest in peace, Michael, and thanks for all the books I read in high school that probably influenced me to become a scientist more than I know.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Kitsch and Anti-Kitsch

This article is an excellent, dense, but clear piece of writing. Highly recommended.

Just one quote: "... we have to ask why there is no kitsch in the Christian Scriptures. It is not that the texts are shy of emotion: to the contrary. But throughout there is an insistence on seeing reality, seeing it steadily and seeing it whole. Kitsch ducks this insistence."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review: Holidays in Heck

P.J. O'Rourke isn't quite as funny as he used to be, but he's writing about his family (considering he spent his 50's rearing three new kids), and I find that funnier than I used to, so it comes out to be an equilibrium. Also, he's writing about politics less, which is probably a bonus. He's usually got a point but it's not always the point he thinks it is. Regardless, I enjoy his writing and his perspective. The two best essays are probably the one about taking his family to Hong Kong and the one about his diagnosis of having a malignant hemmorhoid, which he acknowledges may be the best cancer for a humorist to have. The essays about his travels in China are pretty good too, but nothing too memorable. Mildly recommended.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Introduction: Words and Rainbows

(I'm going to take a step back and give an introduction to Barfield's thought as I see it. I should have taken the hint because he starts each of his classic books with these examples, and takes a bit of time to develop them till he takes off. I'm struggling with the attempt to accurately represent his thought and argument here, so I figure I'll try with this as an intro. I'll go back to part 3 of this series after this.)

There are two things you need to think about with every sentence as you read something by Owen Barfield: words and rainbows.

Words are where he starts. Poetic Diction (reviewed here) was his first book and was basically an expansion of his Honors Project, and this was about what it sounds like: the words chosen for poetry. But because Barfield believes that all words contain something of the history of their original creation in them, talking about words is talking about history, so that talking about where they came from is talking about where they are going. So on the one hand, it's just words, but on the other hand, everything is about words. This resonates with what we know about us being built from words of DNA, and our ability to look into the DNA to discern the history of the DNA words. Exciting stuff for a scientist.

Barfield observed that we originally had fewer words with broader meanings that would overlap and poetically reverbate. But as time passes, lives are lived and knowledge is increased, the meaning of the words becomes more specific, "fossilized" or "calcified", and the multiple meanings are lost while more specific "scientific" meanings are gained. Not that there's anything wrong with that! The way forward according to Barfield is not to limit our vocabularies and somehow forget the specific meanings, but rather to put our words back together in new and poetic ways. This may sound like sitting around writing poems, but it isn't. Verlyn Flieger makes a strong case in Splintered Light (reviewed here) that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote Middle Earth (starting from words/languages not geography, and including various prominent songs and poems in it!) as his way of putting fragmented things back together, just like his friend Barfield suggested. It is possible that one reason people have found Middle Earth so inspiring is because Tolkien meticulously and creatively captured Barfield's ideas in a story, possibly the only way it can be fully captured.

The other thing you need to constantly keep in mind is rainbows. Barfield's other "great" book, Saving the Appearances (review here) starts with the sentence "Look at a rainbow." and then asks, "Is it really there?"

The rainbow does not exist except as a combination of light, rain, and the observer. It moves with the observer, but it's not a hallucination, it is a true observation of the outside world. You really see it -- it is really there. (Interestingly enough, a recent Scientific American article talked about the rainbow halos seen around shadows, called "glories", and these too are tied to the observer. There was no question in that article of whether the "glory" is really there.)

Barfield's key move is to say that if a friend there with you also sees the rainbow, you talk about it as a real thing: "Hey, look at that rainbow!". It is really there as a "collective representation" that you both see and process in your minds and talk about with your words. Then he extends this to look at a tree nearby. This, too, he notes, is a collective representation. We can understand that from previous experiments that the tree is made of cells and the cells have photosynthetic pigments in the leaves and that can explain all sorts of things about the tree, why it changes color in the fall, etc. But fundamentally, what we're talking about when we talk about the particles that make up the tree is a model or hypothesis of the things we can't see, collective representations on top of collective representations.

When I type "rainbow" or "tree" on my computer, and when you read those words, we can be pretty sure we're talking about the same thing and are using the same "collective representation" for it, and likewise for the scientific models of atoms and photosynthesis that work very well to describe the tree or why the rainbow only shows up when the sun is behind you. They are true and consistent collective representations, invoked by the words.

Barfield's basic point is that the observer is part of the whole scheme for the rainbow and for the tree. And his apparent conflict with science comes in when science tries to remove the observer from the picture and Barfield says "you can't do that!". You are part of the system, whether you're observing a rainbow or a tree, and whether you're observing it at the macro- or micro-scopic level. You're making observations, putting them together, and talking about them with words, or "collective representations" as he likes to call them because he wants to group thoughts and words together.

(Students of 20th-century physics may realize that the involvement of the observer with the experiment is actually one of the fundamental conclusions of 20th-century physics! Barfield's ideas actually cohere well with some physics experiments.)

So as I write about Barfield, remember the words, and remember the rainbow. These are all human observations described with human words.

Now we may be ready to start part 1.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Review: Civilization by Niall Ferguson

This book is a history of civilization, and the first book by Ferguson I've read. I thought Ferguson's economic focus and anecdotal arguments worked rather well in the early parts of the book, but when he got to the latter half of the 20th century it seems the wheels started to come off. Intriguing arguments: that the Chinese have imported a work ethic and savings mentality along with Christianity (especially interesting coming from an atheist, albeit right-wing, author). I-don't-buy-it: that clothes shaped the consumer society, I think causes and effects are being totally mangled there. Wait-and-see: that the US will be in decline precisely because China is becoming more Western (nothing about India?!). At the end of the day, a short book in popular style can't help but be incomplete, and Ferguson is so intent on making iconoclastic arguments that it ends up reading like Malcolm Gladwell-lite applied to history. The problem of cherry-picking is pervasive. But like Ferguson says about climate change, he'll have to let the qualified people argue about it. I'll let the historians argue about the overall arguments, but at least this provided some interesting anecdotes and new angles about empire and economics. So if I don't buy Krugman that debt is no problem, but if I also don't buy Ferguson that it's totally out of control yet, then who do I buy??

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Weird Time

(I really do have a continuation of the Barfield sequence of posts half-written, but once again a Sunday of education led to some thoughts about time and science and faith ... )

Scripture has a strange sense of time. For example, there's the way the author of Hebrews takes a Psalm referring to the Exodus and says, "This is talking to you, today." But it goes beyond that. Skeptics take a dim view of the way John's gospel appears to place the crucifixion on a different night than the others (probably so, but slightly debatable in my opinion), and of how Matthew's King Herod and Luke's Census couldn't overlap. (Nevermind the unanimity of the four on the essential points, but that's another post for another day.) And the "simple explanation" of 6 24-hour days of creation runs aground very quickly on the mountains of evidence supplied by biology, chemistry, and physics.

We play with time as a church. The way we keep repeating Christmas and Easter, bringing the birth and death of Christ into the rhythm of the seasons, re-enacting the past in the present with pagaents and parades. The very day of Easter skips about in time so that a musician's family always has to check the calendar to see when the spring "crunch time" will be this year. Not to mention the time-spanning remembrance built into the Eucharist, looking back to that upper room and forward to the New Jerusalem.

Many theological puzzles are really questions about time. Your sins are washed away, or is it they have been washed away, but why is there still such struggle in so many places? Theodicy is not really a question of why not but why not yet? Why do we not yet see all things subjected to him? What has happened already, what is happening now, and what will happen later? When is it time to quote 1 Corinthians 15 (looking forward to the future putting-right of the resurrection) and when to quote 2 Corinthians 4 instead (always bearing about his death that his life may be made manifest ... bringing the past into the present)?

All of these indicate an unconscionable mixing of time in Scripture and the church. It seems that trying to straighten out exactly when Galatians was written relative to Acts can be maddeningly elusive if you insist on being 100% sure. Time is weird in the Bible.

But we never see how science takes just as weird a view of time. If I'm to be a scientist, I'm to control time, to run the experiment so many times I know the future from a large enough sample size of the past. I count on my experiment to be clean and elegant enough that I can do it over and over again and it won't wear out or bend or change. These assumptions predicate that I can step through time when I really am trapped in its flow, and only in limited cases can I pretend to lift myself out of it for a moment. And even then, that phrase, "for a moment," belies that time still goes on.

If you try to run a controlled experiment with who you're going to marry ... well, you're going to end up like Newt Gingrich. That's not good, folks. Us normal folks can't do that, and it doesn't seem to improve things. For the biggest decisions, science can inform but it must take a back seat to the fact that my life is unique and so is every moment of every decision I make.

Science works better the simpler (and therefore the more repeatable) the system -- until you simplify so far you run into the Uncertainty Principle and the entanglement of time and space in a single coordinate system. When the speed of light and time-space come into conflict, it is time-space that bends and gives way!

We cannot escape the weirdness of time any more than we can escape the weirdness of our own souls and viewpoints embedded inside and itself entangled with these mortal frames.

What gives me hope is that Christianity, with its timeless God living from 4BC to 30AD, is as strange as time itself, even with the same flavor of strangeness and beauty as creation.

I don't expect this to convince anyone, but I know it sustains me. The incarnate, eternal, uncontrollable God reflected 66 ways in the books of the Bible is weird -- the right kind of weird. If that's not a hymn, then maybe it should be.