Sunday, January 29, 2012

It Is All Happening Now

Today's Sabbath observation is of some interesting similarities between the gospel narratives of the Temptation of Jesus, 1 Corinthians 10, and Hebrews 3-4. All refer back to the story of Israel wandering in the wilderness and all are about temptation and time.

First off, all make the point (explicit in the epistles, implicit in the gospels because of the setting in the wilderness) that the story of Israel is repeating itself. What happened to them was for us, Paul writes (1 Cor. 10:6), because their story is our story and their YHWH is our God. Countless sermons have been built on this assertion. But realize what an amazing assertion it is: that this story about the deliverance of a bunch of slaves in the desert over 3000 years ago is still relevant. That's because God is universal and God is the same, and our problem is the same. It's like the past is happening again.

The author of Hebrews makes this explicit in a slightly different way, by emphasizing the entrance to the promised land as the "rest" provided by God. This rest is also the rest that God entered into on the seventh day of creation (4:4) and it's the same rest referred to both by David in Psalm 95 and by Moses when looking toward the promised land. The author's point is that this is ALL the same thing, even though the Scripture references are scattered across thousands of years (and even the writing of that observation is now back two thousand years!). This rest is the salvation offered by Jesus, the gift putting things right, the rightness and peace of "shalom." Temptation attracts us away from this rest. Temptation is anti-peace, anti-wholeness, frenetic and frantic. Sound familiar?

The author of the Hebrews emphasizes that for each of these events -- the 7th day of creation, the words of David, and the wilderness wandering of Israel -- the real choice and real crux of action is Today. Again and again the author repeats the old Psalm, "Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts" and "So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest." The author (of Hebrews and of Psalm 95) says that "Today" is today. All these times are happening for you, for your choice and your direction and your repentance. In this sense, it is all happening now. Look at the present tense in 4:1: "A promise being left us of entering into his rest."*

This is personally convicting. When I look at myself, I don't see the rest I want to see. So many "todays" I have not entered in. I haven't been particularly peaceful lately, although with four small children I hope there's a bit more contingency grace for that. That serenity is not a cliche, it's a goal that Christ can bring me into, it's a land waiting to be entered, with patience. And the temptation is there, just as it was for those wandering in the desert, to turn another way, to another source for energy and life, whether by hoarding manna or begging for quail.

Adam and Eve faced that temptation and turned elsewhere, going so far as to hide from their maker (and their maker played along with the charade they set up that they could hide!). Jesus faced the same temptation, three times explicitly, and stronger than they ever did.

This is where a Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture becomes crystal clear, because what was the nature/event of the Fall? (David Bazan wrote a whole album about this with Curse Your Branches, though I don't agree with his conclusions!*) Was the moment of the Fall definitely the eating of a fruit, teeth ripping into a sugary something-or-other, was that the primary disobedience? If that's the case, why didn't Jesus go to a garden and refuse to eat the fruit? If the historical details of Genesis are of primary importance, then there's a sense that Jesus never fully reversed the fall.

But what if the Fall was something different, this inevitable, selfish turning away that now must be turned away/repented from? If the Fall was reaching out to eat what you shouldn't, then it was reversed by the refusal to turn stones into bread. If the Fall was displaying an unholy reliance in God to catch you when you were doing something wrong (to stop you from eating the fruit), then it was reversed by refusing to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. And, most generally perhaps, if the Fall was worship of the power of self and bowing down before the wrong thing, a reflection of the self in the skin of the fruit, then it was reversed by refusing to bend a knee on the top of the world before the father of lies. Each of these is greater than refusing to eat a fruit, and yet each of these IS a refusal to eat the fruit. Each of these was reversed and resisted, and each of these is still a temptation, even years after that temple pinnacle itself was razed.

If we believe Jesus actually, truly reversed the Fall with his life, culminating in his resurrected and ascended body, then we have to believe that Easter happened 2000 years ago, not necessarily that a piece of fruit entered one guy's mouth twice that long ago (or more).

It is more important to understand that a historical Jesus fixed the world than that a historical Adam broke it. And it is most important to understand that today, right now, he is here holding out his rest for us to enter. May we actually take him up on it, one of these todays.

* Not sure if this present tense is there in the Greek, but it's there in the King James translation I'm using right now, so "today" that's a present tense verb, which I think is cool!

** Curse Your Branches is a great album for exposing the insufficiency of the Sunday School treatment of the Fall but of course it stops way too soon. The day is yet young ...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gaiman on Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton

A 2004 speech by Neil Gaiman about Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton can be found here. Note that it was made to the society that celebrates the three of them, and yet I still found it more positive than I expected. I think I've focused too much on Gaiman's criticisms of Lewis -- it's nice to know those are the criticisms of a friend, and I think, at a level, that I've always known that.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Built With Words

I just published some thoughts on DNA, words, science, and faith in "Built With Words", an essay for Response, our university magazine. Check it out!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 2: Holding On Too Tightly To Science

(Before reading this, please start here at the beginning of this series.)

I have only seen bits of Brian Cox on the BBC, but I can already tell you he's a great science communicator. He's so clear that he occasionally shows up some of the contradictions of doing science. In particular, I was watching a program in which Cox very early on made it clear that all science is built on mental models that fit the data. But with every other sentence he says it's clear that these models are so close to reality that they can be taken for reality. Every other sentence involved taking the mental models as what Barfield would call idols.

This over-mechanization of the world is not an issue with the typical bogeyman Darwin -- after all, Paley himself likened organisms to a mechanism, to a watch, and God to the watchmaker. This is an issue with doing science itself (Barfield traces it back to Francis Bacon). As a scientist I have to ask, when have I followed my models so far that I have followed them too far, that I forget that they are models? Again, this is what Barfield calls idolatry. (Important to point out that anything, even the church itself -- even theologies, or more particularly, heresies -- can become an idol, but this is just about the scientific breed.)

Barfield, StA, p.39 “… the descriptions may still … be valuable, not as actual descriptions, but as notional ‘models’. What is important is, to remember that that is all they are. … For their nature is of artificial imagery. And when the nature and limitations of artificial images are forgotten, they become idols.”
Barfield, StA, p.62-63 “[The scientific mode of thinking] had temporarily set up the appearances of the familiar world … as things wholly independent of man. It had clothed them with the independence and extrinsicality of the unrepresented itself. But a representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate – ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. … [Evolution as one of these idols] … I am speaking of course of the form which the theory finally took, not of the concept of evolution itself. That is factual enough. The record of the rocks is a script containing stored memories of the earth’s past. It is only a question of how the script is to be read. … The appearances were idols. They had no ‘within’. Therefore the evolution which had produced them could only be conceived mechanomorphically as a series of impacts of idols on other idols.”
It is worth noting that people used quantitative models to predict what nature would do long before the Scientific Revolution, but for Barfield, those are not idols (the Greeks had idols of a somewhat more concrete variety, come to think of it). Those old idols were for "saving the appearances," and when they fit the data well enough they could predict far in advance with amazing mathematical precision: see the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient computer, which computed dates for religion -- for idols, appropriately enough.

Barfield, StA, p.47 “It was for the science of astronomy … to ‘save’ the ‘appearances,’ that is, the apparent movements of the heavenly bodies, and particularly of the sun, moon, and planets, which were the most difficult to account for, by devising hypothetical patterns of movement, which would account for the appearances without infringing on the fundamental principles.”
Barfield, StA, p.49 “The Greek word theoria meant ‘contemplation’ and is the term used in Aristotle’s psychology to designate the moment of fully conscious participation, in which the soul’s potential knowledge (its ordinary state) becomes actual, so that man can at last claim to be ‘awake.’ … [I]t does emphasize the difference between a proposition which it is hoped may turn out to be true, and a proposition, the truth or untruth of which is irrelevant. The geometrical paths and movements devised for the planets were, in the minds of those who invented them, hypotheses in the latter sense. They were arrangements – devices – for saving the appearances; and the Greek and medieval astronomers were not at all disturbed by the fact that the same appearances could be saved by two or more quite different hypotheses, such as an eccentric or an epicycle or, particularly in the case of Venus and Mercury, by the supposed revolution round the earth or supposed revolution around the sun. All that mattered was, which was the simplest and the most convenient for practical purposes; for neither of them had any essential part in truth or knowledge.”
It is important to remember that these ancient astronomers used math that is easy to translate for purposes that are more difficult to translate, because they involve words that have morphed and changed in meaning over the millenia. They could predict with precision but explained their predictions with words that have shifted in meaning. For instance, most chemistry books credit Democritus as the first chemist because he proposed that there is an indivisible bit of matter called an 'atom'. But ...

Barfield, StA, p.45: “Even the atoms of Democritus were, of course, not atoms, as the word has been understood in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They were imagined as components of mind no less than of matter.”

One of the main points I get from Barfield is that because words have changed in meaning over time, the change in words and the way in looking at the world caused by the Scientific Revolution is as significant as the change in methods. In other words, it's not all about the scientific method, it's about the scientific way of thinking, and this way of thinking is only one way of thinking among several options. Scientific thinking is a deliberately limited set of spectacles that allows us to do incredible things by limiting ourselves to repeatable and controllable (reducible) phenomena. Stuff smaller than us.

p.81 “If we are present at a church service, where a censer is swinging, we may either attend to the whole representation or we may select for attention the actual movement to and fro of the censer. In the latter case, if we are a Galileo, we may discover the law of the pendulum. It is a good thing to discover the law of the pendulum. It is not such a good thing to lose, for that reason, all interest in, and ultimately even perception of, the incense whose savor it was the whole purpose of the pendulum to release.”
So Galileo changed the way we see and the way we talk as well as the way we experiment. All well and good in the lab, but in the church service it might cause us to miss something. And this leads to one of Barfield's most surprising assertions to me -- that Galileo's problem was not that the model he was putting forward was better, but that he insisted that it was the only possible one:

p.50-51 “When the ordinary man hears that the Church told Galileo that he might teach Copernicanism as a hypothesis which saved all the celestial phenomena satisfactorily, but ‘not as being the truth’, he laughs. But this was really how Ptolemaic astronomy had been taught! … It was not simply a new theory of the nature of the celestial movements that was feared, but a new theory of the nature of theory; namely, that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth. … Our collective representations began when men began to take the models, whether geometrical or mechanical, literally.”
I laugh too ... but is there something to Barfield's statement here? Are we holding on too tightly our hypotheses and hardening them into the only way we can look at the world? I have spent whole class periods extolling the amazing mechanisms of biochemistry, the watch-like efficiency of glycolysis and the like. When does that enjoyment of nature become such a myopic focus on atomic explanations that all else fades into mist?

I would like to find out more about the historical accuracy of Barfield's assumption. If he's right about the meaning of words changing over time, we'll definitely have to watch out for that when interpreting the words of the churchmen who both arrayed themselves against and encouraged Galileo.

The take-home of this strand of Barfield's thought is that it may be possible to hold onto science too tightly. To worship it and say there is nothing else than what I can understand, dissect, and control.

This has implications for reading Genesis and other creation accounts as well. Too often we take the English translations of the Hebrew as obviously accurate, but if the words themselves shift in meaning, we have to wonder what that has done. And this holds out the possibility that it's not "there can be only one" when it comes to models of creation. If we hold onto both science and Genesis a little more lightly, then maybe we can see that these words the Hebrews used in this context are just as good as the English words and math I use in my biochemistry class. If we would be able to "download" the shift in the way people thought over time into our own perception, with different words and different meanings for those words, Barfield says, the stories we tell with those words, the "models" we use to "save" the "appearances" would look very different:

Barfield, StA, p.37: “We should then have to write a different pre-history altogether. And we are not entitled to assume without inquiry that … such an alternative ‘model’ would be any less efficient than the one we have in fact chosen. It might be very much more so.”

In other words, the best way to describe creation may be as a six-day sequence in which YHWH orders the universe and puts all their idols under his feet. This saves not only the appearances (at least the appearances of the ancient Hebrews!) -- it also saves us.

(This series continues in Part 3 here.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Responding to Barfield, Part 1: Pre-History Never Happened

(It may be helpful to read my recent review of Saving the Appearances before jumping into this series.)

I'm going to do something a little different with the Owen Barfield quotes from Saving the Appearances. This is promoted by the fact that when I finished with retyping the "best" parts of the book, I had 11 pages of quotes (as opposed to the 4 pages from Poetic Diction). Also, the book builds on itself so much that I think half the quotes are unintelligible without reading the book. Yet I want to remind myself of these quotes and mull them over! So rather than perform a quote dump, I will take a quote or paragraph (entirely out of context, of course) and react to it here. That's probably more appropriate for this electronic context anyway.

Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, p. 37: "It can do no harm to recall occasionally that the prehistoric evolution of the earth, as it is described for example in the early chapters of H.G. Wells’s Outline of History, was not merely never seen. It never occurred."

In "City of Death", a classic Doctor Who episode, the Doctor and companion travel four billion years into the Earth's past, which of course is a red and brown volcanic mess. This is what would happen, in fact, if we could travel to that point in time. I don't think Barfield argues that. But he does argue, what does it matter because we can't. For something to happen it has to be observed. And if a mind is not there four billion years ago, watching the lava bubble and the molecules organize, we can develop an idea of what it would have looked like, but we didn't see it. And if we don't see it, it didn't happen, Barfield says.

It should be clear what side of the "if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it did it make a noise?" debate Barfield is on.

This seemed extreme to me at first, but Barfield would say that's because my mind's been infected with the mechanical idols of the age that look at everything (man included) as being a mechanism/machine of some sort, when observation and participation is a crucial part of the process, which requires a mind.

All the pictures of the primordial earth, including that of the Doctor Who episode, look and feel fake. That's because they are fake: they are projections and models of what it would look like if we (or someone who thought like us) were there. Not only is that not true for billions of years ago, it's not even true for 500 years ago! People didn't just use different languages long ago, they thought differently and saw differently. (For that matter, most medieval films and stories feel fake too.) This is one of Barfield's main points, and upon reflection, it's a good one.

This is why Barfield insists that matter did not create mind, but that mind must have created matter. The concept of "matter" required a mind to organize it and create it. Whatever happened before that mind was there is a fascinating process but is at the end of the day only a process recreated by the mind studying it. It can reveal some things but is very limited. In this sense, it is a model and projection, and it did not happen.

A lot is made of the vastness of time and space in the universe, and how small man is, how seemingly insignificant. But if there was no observer around for those billions of years to be bored, does it matter that a billion years rolled by, rather than a million, rather than a thousand, or ten? And if there is no method for traveling to the nearest star before dying of old age, much less another galaxy, does it matter that there's so much space out there? We'd never actually be able to go there anyway, so why does it worry us? Or does it only matter as something we can look at, observe, think about for an instant, wonder at, make hypotheses about, and move on to more important things like the family dinner?

(This series continues in Part 2 here.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: 11-22-63

In 11-22-63, Stephen King does counterfactual history. I love counterfactual history and I think Stephen King can be a very good writer when he reins himself in a bit, and this book was as good as those two predilections would predict. There's lots of good surprises in this book but I won't spoil any of them because it's that tension of how does this time travel work? and what is the source of the evil? and was there a conspiracy or not? that propels the narrative here. In fact, the third one was spoiled for me and I think that's why I felt the book dragged a little in the middle with all the endless observation of Lee Harvey Oswald. The first two remained welcome surprises, creative and fitting, even the time travel physics. The most pleasant surprise for me was how, well, romantic the book ends up being. Stephen King's gifts at characterization are in full view. There's a few points of the description of evil which were a little too well-described shall we say. But this was one of the most enjoyable and thrilling 1000-page books I've read, definitely my favorite of King's. It's not perfect, but literary perfection is not the point: the story is the point. And that's what I like about King at his best.

PS: Some interesting theology embedded in King's writing, actually, if anyone dares to suss it out. This book is a strong example of that.

Fragmentation and Complexity: For Proteins as Well as Society and Language

Need to look at this new Nature article by Joe Thornton more closely, but there's a great quote about the research in Science Daily. Thornton reconstructs old enzymes to see how they developed. His team found out that a particular enzyme increased in complexity as it LOST functions:

"It's counterintuitive but simple: complexity increased because protein functions were lost, not gained," Thornton said. "Just as in society, complexity increases when individuals and institutions forget how to be generalists and come to depend on specialists with increasingly narrow capacities."

And, as Owen Barfield would say, as languages fragment and specialize as well. Proteins, society, and language, all built from splintering words.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Effects in the Tree of Life

Here's a nice little blog post with clips and quotes about the effects done in the creation scenes for Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. My favorite quote is about how some natural images look too perfect and they have to mess it up a little to make it look authentic:

“There are images of Saturn where, when you work with the pristine, beautiful, original material, it actually looks so clean, you couldn’t put it on the screen without people thinking it’s just CG,” Mr. Glass said. “And so we had to add in tiny subtle textual details.” They separated out the moons around Saturn and added texture.

Maybe those are like beauty marks they added?