Free Will, Pelagius, and the East

Frank Turk, cf this post, is down on wiggly ecumenism. And in this he is right. But it also seems out that he’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For there’s an important, and very difficult, first step toward ecumenism that he is not doing very well, especially regarding the East. Different traditions, as part of their growing apart, develop their own terminology. Even where they use the same words, they don’t often have the same meaning. Thus the first step of any ecumenical discussion is to find a common language for communication. This is one thing that one would hope a platform like Evangel and god-blogging in general can accomplish.

For an example of this ignorance of terminology, Mr Turk is on the face of it a confirmed Calvinist hewing as close to the Solas-ish and TULIPy terms and thinking as he might. Now for myself I don’t exactly know how all these notions work out precisely. For example, Sola Fide, on the face of it would instruct that you are saved by faith alone. Which in turn would imply that faith is sufficient for salvation, i.e., all who believe are saved. Yet, the devils believe and yet are not saved. Now, clearly this is not a notion coming out of the woodwork for which Calvin and Calvinists do not have a ready answer. Yet for an outsider to the tradition, not knowing their language and pathways of thought … this notion Sola Fide, on the face of it seems inconsistent. I don’t know the answer. For this term is a little foreign to me.

Continue reading →

Late Vocations Midterms

Well, this class I’m taking has a mid-term exam. Next week I’m going to post my answers … the answers are due at midnight Saturday. We have to answer 2 of the 3 questions.

Question 1:

Write a short (3-5 pp., single spaced) presentation or sermon on the Genesis lection for the feast of the Birth of the Theotokos. Be sure to consult the text of the service in your attempt to understand the relation of the text of this reading to the celebration. You may also wish to draw from the larger context of the book of Genesis in formulating your answer.

The reading is from Genesis:

Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: “I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. “Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”

Question 2:

Write a short (3-5 pp., single spaced) presentation or sermon on the Exodus lection for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Be sure to consult the text of the service in your attempt to understand the relation of the text of this reading to the celebration. You may also wish to draw from the larger context of the book of Exodus in formulating your answer.

The reading is from Exodus:

So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea; then they went out into the Wilderness of Shur. And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet. There He made a statute and an ordinance for them, and there He tested them, and said, “If you diligently heed the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the Lord who heals you. Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees; so they camped there by the waters. And they journeyed from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came to the Wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they departed from the land of Egypt.

Question 3:

Write a short (3-5 pp., single spaced) presentation or sermon on the 3 Kingdoms (1 Kings) lection for the feast of the Entry of the Theotokos in the Temple. Be sure to consult the text of the service in your attempt to understand the relation of the text of this reading to the celebration. You may also wish to draw from the larger context of the book of 3 Kingdoms (1 Kings) in formulating your answer.

The reading is from 3 Kings:

And it came to pass when Solomon had finished building the House of the Lord, he assembled all the elders of Israel in Zion, to bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord out of the City of David, which is Zion. And the priests took up the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, the Tabernacle of the Testimony, and all the holy vessels that were in the Tabernacle of the Testimony.

And the King and all Israel went before the Ark. And the priests brought the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord to its place, into the Oracle of the Temple, into the Holy of Holies, under the wings of the cherubim. For the cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the Ark so that the cherubim made a covering above the Ark and its holy things above. There was nothing in the Ark except the two tablets of the Covenant which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord had made a Covenant.

And when the priests came out from the holy place, a cloud filled the house. And the priests were unable to stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord God Almighty filled the house.

Of LXX and MT

Recently I noted textual differences between the MT and LXX text in Isaiah. One other difference noted in our reading recently was in 1 Chronicles (translated as Supplements in the LXX) 21. From the ESV (a MT based translation):

Now the angel of the Lord had commanded Gad to say to David that David should go up and raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. So David went up at Gad’s word, which he had spoken in the name of the Lord. Now Ornan was threshing wheat. He turned and saw the angel, and his four sons who were with him hid themselves. As David came to Ornan, Ornan looked and saw David and went out from the threshing floor and paid homage to David with his face to the ground. And David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of the threshing floor that I may build on it an altar to the Lord—give it to me at its full price—that the plague may be averted from the people.” Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So David paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold by weight for the site.

From the NETS (a very recent LXX translation), which because of DRM imprinting I cannot excerpt here, but go to this link (pdf) and check out 1 Supplements 21:18-27. In the first Ornan also sees the theophany (angel) that David is witnessing. In the second … he is not.

A second feature found only in the LXX  is the interesting banter/exchange passing between David and Ornan in the purchase of the threshing floor. It seems likely that it was possibly traditional in a certain style of bargaining to offer a price, have the seller insist that he would just give it, and the buyer would then pay full price disregarding the formulaic refusal. However in the LXX this passage is altered. David offers a price (in silver). Ornan refuses. David then insists he will pay in silver (which is according to formula) … and then he pays in gold instead of silver, which contravenes what I perceive as the custom via an extravagant overpayment.

This raises two questions … What do we take as meaning of David’s theophany (David it might be noted had less evident and obvious theophanic experiences than his son Solomon). Is there any change to the story or meaning that you might extract if Ornan and his sons do not witness the angel? Is there a connection to the contravention of custom in the following bargain/purchase exchange?

Isaiah 7, Nativity, and the Theotokos

One of the side effects of the late vocations classes I’m taking (currently on the Old Testament), is that after each session I return with wonderful kernels of ideas from which to expand a (hopefully) interesting essay based on the discussions we have in class. Last week one of the books we read was Isaiah.

Isaiah 7 … and particularly Isaiah 7:14 has been a lighting rod for messianic interpretations.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin
shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

This verse and the surrounding few verses, Christians have traditionally taken as a sign-point identifying the virginity of the Theotokos. Much modern commentary focuses on defending the use of the word virgin. The Masoretic text (MT), which is the primary source for the Western canon (apparently) uses a term which is more ordinarily translated as young or unmarried girl … not virgin. The LXX text however both originates much earlier, might have used a separate strand of source text than the MT, and unambiguously uses a Greek term which translates as virgin.

However, that isn’t the core problem. For even if you either buy the somewhat contorted arguments for translating the MT term “virgin” or just use the LXX itself as your base text there remains a problem (of course if you’re going to use the LXX here, then you’ve a problem explaining why you’ve decided to dropped half a dozen or more books from the canon … additionally one of the oldest complete extant LXX copies the Codex Alexandrinus also contains first and second Clement in the New Testament). What I’ve always been taught is that hermeneutically speaking “proof texting” or taking verses in isolation removed from the context of the surrounding text is looked upon as a bad or poor hemerneutical method. That is to say, a thing not to do. Yet this is exactly what seems to be occurring here. For when you take the whole text of Isaiah 7 in context then interpreting Isaiah as talking about anything outside of the context of the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom is unwarranted. Isaiah throughout is highly poetic and there are direct references to current and near future events by the prophet … and in Isaiah’s context the near future was not by any means six or seven centuries in the future, i.e., Jesus birth. Therefore the popular (in the West) hermeneutical method the “historical/critical” method would indicate, I suspect, that this is not about the Messiah but about Assyria. Isaiah’s contemporaries would not have interpreted chapter 7 as being about an event centuries in the future and apparently there are few records of who pre-first century Jewish rabbinic interpretation would have viewed this chapter.

Yet universally the early patristic theologians located this verse as one of the clear prophetic verses predicting Jesus birth and role as Messiah and they weren’t “proof-texting” or misusuing a hermenuetical method. What they were doing was using a different hermeneutic. One of the dominant hermeneutics of late antiquity was to use the typological and or allegorical methods to interpret Scripture. These verses are important indications of the Theotokos and the Messiah not due to their interpretation as prophecy but because of their resonance with and their similarity to those parts of Jesus life and birth. There was a fevered and fervent effort using the allegorical/typological methods throughout the early centuries following Jesus resurrection plumbing Scripture for all the places and ways Christ and those around him could be found pre-figured or type-ically located in the Old Testament. A simple example of this is Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days is seen as a type (or allegorical allusion) to Christ’s being in Death/Hades for three days prior to his Resurrection.

But there is a problem for the modern western (protestant?) Christian who has decided the typological/allegorical hermeneutic is to be abandoned. For it seems if you do so, you need to abandon Isaiah 7 as a prophecy which points to Christ. Yet, noting that modern translators of texts such as the ESV, which primarily use the MT documents for their basis use the less proper translation term “virgin” over “unmarried/young girl” in this case. Why? Because they are Christian and the traditional Christian interpretation of this text is that it is in fact pointing to Christ and the Nativity. Yet that does violence to a consistent hermeneutical method.

If, on the other hand to avoid this one was to grant validity to allegorical/typological methods then it seems you also have to allow its use elsewhere. Recently on a number of Evangelical/Protestant blogs discussion resurfaced regarding the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos (Mary), i.e., that she remained virgin after the birth of Christ. The claim was made there that “there is no Scriptural support” for that belief and all support for that is just tradition unsupported by Scripture (a thing rejected by most Protestants), yet the early Church using the type/allegorical methods of interpretation found Scriptural support for the perpetual virginity throughout via this hermeneutic. Here are two quick examples of that. One example of that “type” is that the passage of Israel out of Egypt is seen as a type of Christ’s birth (Israel passing out of Egypt toward Canaan with the concomitant allegorical associations of Egypt as sin and so on). The sea then is the Thetokos and the parting of the Sea in this case is the Nativity  … and the water’s restoration after is the return of her virginity. A second example would be the burning bush. The bush with God’s voice is an example of the incarnation and the unconsumed bush is Mary, who gave God flesh yet was unchanged by the presence of God, i.e., her virginity/purity remaining is the bush being unconsumed. This is just two of the many instances of allegorical instances in which Mary’s virginity (and continued virginity) can be found in the Old Testament.

Of Elijah and Darwin

This summer I had a class in theology which I sometimes discussed. This class was part of the “late vocations” program offered by in our area by the OCA. Currently, I’m taking the second of these classes, and true to form the reading/work load has been somewhat larger than expected. We’re taking a “great books” approach to the Old Testament, and in our 8 week class … reading and discussing the entire Old Testament …. and for the technically minded, using the Codex Alexandrinus for our canon … which means that the books we read are somewhat extended from the standard Protestant even Catholic set of books. In the below, I’m going to explore a question/point raised in class which I would like to explore in more detail.

Throughout the Old Testament, but certainly notable in Judges through Kings IV (the Orthodox church uses the Septuagint as its basis for the Old Testament, Samuel I and II and Kings I & II become Kings I-IV) there is constant influence from external polytheistic religions. There is not just military conquest and battle back and forth between nations being portrayed, but we find priests contending and confronting those following other gods and abandoning those of other religions. There is a marked contrast between how, for example, Elijah deals with the priests of Baal (Kings III 18) and how today we confront those who believe differently in this modern age. Continue reading →

On Your Inner Israel

And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him till the morning.  And he saw that he prevailed not against him; and he touched the broad part of his thigh, and the broad part of Jacob’s thigh was benumbed in his wrestling with him.  And he said to him, Let me go, for the day has dawned; but he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.  And he said to him, What is thy name? and he answered, Jacob.  And he said to him, Thy name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name; for thou hast prevailed with God, and shalt be mighty with men. [Genesis 32]

Well, so then Israel means something like “one who wrestles with God” or at the very least prevails in his struggles with divinity. The early Church father’s, who by and large were not of Hebrew ancestry, read that through Christ we are all striving to shed our inner Egyptian and cross the Jordan to be come Israelites. The connection of out spiritual state with Israel can be quite plainly seen in Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses. So … let’s take this and see what it might mean for the American Christian today? What does it mean for the individual Christian. How do you wrestle with God?

Back when I was at University, in the 80s and not as I tell my children when the dinosaurs roamed the plains, most of my study was concentrated in maths and physics which essentially was to wrestle with Nature. Which was to ask, how was the world constructed? How can we understand it? How do we interact with it on a fundamental level? However, these are the big questions. People working in the field don’t work directly on the large questions. At any one time, people are working on smaller, more tractable questions which on getting answers will move the larger communities understanding of the big picture forward … or at the very least sharpen our understanding of what we don’t know.

Similarly, it seems to me, we as Christians are called to wrestle in exactly that way with God. How do we understand God? How are we to interact with him and with others? How to understand and work toward Theosis/Sanctification?

So, here’s my question for the gentle reader. What smaller questions are you working on as you wrestle? What knots are you trying to untangle?

Of Heroism and Popular Culture
The Secular vs The Cross

John Mark Reynolds in a comment to my (first!) post at Evangel offered:

A child would view Favre well . . . but a real man would see him better. He would glory in his manly exploits as an image of excellence and be provoked to go and do likewise in his own chosen profession.

This is in short hoping a hope (or a recognition) that Favre (or pick your favorite athlete) and his exploits might do good in us by inspiring the Greek virtue arete in us. However that leads to the question … can one find support for the type of excellence of the sort Mr Favre would inspire … as being good (or Good) in Scripture (or enlarge that to church tradition for the non-sola-scriptura crowd). I think the answer is … no … but I might like to be convinced otherwise (after all I am not without my own sporting heroes, i.e., Fabian Cancellara). Continue reading →

Dependent vs Interdepenent

In recent discussions around the term Dependent Rational Animals, a book I hope to return to reading and not just skimming the first few chapters, commenter Boonton and I went back and forth a bit over the use of the term “Dependent.” Mr Boonton argued for inter-dependent instead of “dependent.” In those discussions I had argued that dependence of all necessarily implies interdependence so that the insistence of the “inter-” was superfluous.

But, on reflection, I think that this is wrong. Preferring the term dependent to interdependent is more than an acknowledgement that dependence (of all) necessarily implies inter-dependence. In one of his objections it was pointed out that dependence brings to mind a wife and children depending on a wage-earner. Yet this is exactly right. We are all exactly like the child or the wife depending on others for so much. The notion that the provider in that situation is not dependent is the crux of my mistake. Humans are social creatures. We depend on social interactions to bring out the human nature in each of us. The independent wage earner with a flock of dependants who look to him for sustenance is the myth. There is no (truly) independent person. This isn’t to deny ethical/moral autonomy and independence as a thing to esteem and to acknowledge. But that independence is contained within the context of a network of social and physical dependence.

For further grist for the mill, I refer to this excerpt from a publisher’s blurb on the aforementioned book:

n Dependent Rational Animals, Alasdair MacIntyre compares humans to other intelligent animals, ultimately drawing remarkable conclusions about human social life and our treatment of those whom he argues we should no longer call “disabled.” MacIntyre argues that human beings are independent, practical reasoners, but they are also dependent animals who must learn from each other in order to remain largely independent. To flourish, humans must acknowledge the importance of dependence and independence, both of which are developed in and through social relationships. This requires the development of a local community in which individuals discover their own “goods” through the discovery of a common Good.

Regarding Fundamentalism

This post by the pseudonymous Larry Niven at Rust Belt Philosophy, which is largely against a traditional morality, in part as defined by Scripture (especially the Old Testament). I think this attitude about traditional morality in part is the result of a common fundamentalist tendency common on the non-Christian left, the “new atheists” like Mr Niven follow that methodology. That same group of people would of course bristle at being termed fundamentalist, yet this is in fact a good term to describe them, their approach to traditional (mostly Biblical) traditions is fundamentalists which makes it in turn far easier to reject. Personally I consider myself a fundamentalist … but use the word ‘fundamentalist’ in a different meaning when I do so. Continue reading →

Howzzat Supposed to Work Anyhow?

Regular commenter JA offers today the following observation:

However, I would (and do) distinguish between tribalism for minority “tribes” and tribalism for the majority in the most powerful nation on Earth. Black pride, Jewish pride, Mormon pride, Catholic pride — these, while (and this is where I probably disagree with Sharansky) still falling short of the ideal of universalism, can be useful for societies which contain them. It’s when the primary group of a powerful society shows too much tribalism that it becomes dangerous. But, again, I think universalism is ultimately best.

A few remarks might follow from this. (I might note that these remarks stem from the book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, by Nathan Sharansky) Continue reading →

Ontology and Theology

The prior post, on Anselm and Gödel were inspired by my starting to look into linking that as a jumping off point on a larger discussion of Ontology and Christianity, the outline of that “larger discussion” will be found below. Originally I planned to write a post on the future of Nuclear energy based on reading a series of papers set out by a interdisciplinary group of MIT professors. That Nuclear post will be postponed one or two nights.

The “Ontological Argument” (with scare quotes) was apparently originally proposed by Anselm. However this is, far from the first strictly ontological argument (no caps, no quotes) used in Christian or Hebrew theology. Some Greek theologians have made the claim that Greek thought is always ontological, i.e., virtual all Greek though has ontological roots. Ontological arguments in standard theological discussions abound, for example:

  • The creation account in Genesis 1 is an essential ontological activity, separating and categorizing creation.
  • Adam’s fall, his in and exile how that is reasoned to affect us is ontological. Adam himself is an ontological as opposed to historical entity.
  • Christ’s resurrection is interpreted in ontological terms. God/Man to ontological categories joined. His resurrection is connected to Adam’s fall ontologically. His “conquering death by death” is an ontological activity. Satan, taking a man (Jesus) into Hades finds he has not taken a man, but God, which ontologically is impossible (God cannot be taken into death) thus destroying death. 
  • The sacramental act of Baptism is an ontological rite, changing a man from non-Christian to one who is Christian.

This, I think, by no means exhaust ontology within the Christian theological canon. It might be more fair to ask that theological concepts in the Christian tradition are not ontological than what ones are.

There are those who find ontological arguments dissatisfying, yet Maths and Physics themselves have ontological methods within their formalisms. Group theory is essentially ontological in nature. If a thing can be identified as a representative of a group, then all the formalisms and data associated with that group can be attached to it. Quantum statistics, specifically Bose vs Fermi spin statistics, is very ontological. Particle X is has integer or half-integer spin … which thereby determines how it is to be treated.

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On Creativity and Machine

About a week ago, I wrote a post continuing the development of a model of creativity and intelligence, although at this model might be seen as a tad overstated). In that post, I outlined an ansatze for the semiotic scaffold that the human noetic machinery manages, bridging the gap between mechanism (network and pathway) all the way to meaning and intent. First let me review where the model stands.

  • The human creative process is viewed as a AI like expert system and symbolic pattern recognition machine which is looking internally at a sea of noise.
  • My original posts on this allowed that a significant criteria for these systems to decide if a particular pattern or decision was good was based on aesthetic judgements.
  • The expert system/pattern matching machinery is in turn programmed and tuned by results of the same said machine.
  • The ansatze noted above is that the noise being viewed is not random electrical noise in the brain, but a window into a very different alternate reality, the noetic realm which is not a philosophical construct but is real.

Now, in maths and physics, an ansatze is a guessed solution to a problem, which is then shown to both solve the problem and secondly is (hopefully) proved to be unique. This is the only method for solving problems when there is no constructive method for working toward a solution. One must guess the answer then show that it works. In this case, the ansatze might be judged as interesting because in fact it provides us a possible answer to some long standing issues. What issues might these be?

  • Carl Jung in his research came to believe that there were evidence that the psyche had access to real data that transcended time and distance.
  • Modern research (noted in a class) finds that Buddhist masters have perceptions of others emotional states and thoughts which shows an advanced degree of perceptiveness. The current explanation is that the these people though their meditation have been attuned to recognize micro-changes in facial expressions of others. How meditation achieves fine degrees of visual acuity and recognition of others faces is not explained … in fact private meditation one would think would make one less, not more, attentive to others expressions. How internal reflection and meditation (and not observations of others) leads one to have hypersensitive and accurate perceptions of micro-expression changes is not explained.
  • In the contemporary Russian novelist Boris Akunin, in his book Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk (which though I have not finished seems to be an entertaining Scooby Doo sort of story set in late 19th century rural Russia), via Sister Pelagia corrects in conversation the number of senses that humans posses (the count is the number of senses besides sight): “No your Grace, five. Not everything that exists in the world can be detected by sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. There is another sense that has no name, which is given to us so that we might feel God’s world not only with our bodies but with our souls.” [… continuing after the Bishop offers this is a fairy mirage … ] “Then let it be a fairy mirage,” the nun said with a stubborn shake of her head. “Around and within our world there is another one, invisible, and perhaps even more than one. We women feel this more clearly than men, because we are not afraid to feel it. Surely, Your Grace, you would not deny that there are some places that cheer and illuminate the soul (God’s churches are usually built there) and there are some that set it shuddering? There is no reason for it; you simply start walking more quickly and cross yourself. I always used to run past the Black Ravine like that, with a chill shiver. And then what happened? That was the spot where there found … “ (and the story continues to recount a tragedy occurring at that spot). The point of this tale is that this notion is prevalent throughout peoples and history.
  • I think this list could easily be extended.

These sorts of things (and as well of course the semiotic scaffold itself) can be explained by the ansatze that the noetic realm is both real and what our inner eye views as it searches for answers and insights in the creative process.

I have some ideas of what might make of structure and interaction and so in this noetic realm itself and how in part it interacts with us … but I’ll leave that for another post.

Instruction of the Young

Norman Geras yesterday pointed to a Dawkins quote and said some things which I agree (in which neither of us agree with Mr Dawkins) yet I would go further. He begins (the quote is from Mr Dawkins):

‘that imposing parental beliefs on children is a form of child abuse’ surely merits some clarifying explanation before we assent to it. It is, of course, easy as well as necessary to draw a distinction between putting a belief to children in a way that makes it plain to them that there are alternatives to, questions about, disagreements over it, and insisting on the belief as the sole unchallengeable truth. There’s a difference between trying to educate children in a spirit that encourages interest in the world and finding out about it, on the one hand, and indoctrination, on the other.

I don’t think this is really a reasonable point of view. The decision of whether there are “alternatives” depends in part on how strongly we feel the matter at hand is true and by contrast how strongly we believe the contrary is false. Take ethics. There are a variety of starting points for ethics, one of which is solipsism. We do not necessarily want to teach our children that solipsism is a reasonable basis for normative ethics even if some philosophers have suggested or explored that possibility (or even if some long lost civilization based its particular practices on that).

Mr Geras continues:

Again, must we not discriminate better from worse as between maintaining some standards of personal cleanliness and not doing so, or between behaving with consideration and kindness and being rude and dishonest? More generally, educating children involves, willy-nilly, the imparting of moral beliefs. This cannot be done without the presentation of some things as good and others as less good or downright bad. Even done in a non-doctrinaire way, it must involve a degree of active direction. It’s misleading, therefore, to pretend that only dogmatists and fanatics narrow the minds of their children to the available sum of human beliefs.

So the question I pose is as follows, examine this exchange attributed to St. John Chrysostom (wiki on St. John here):

“You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house.”
“But I will kill you,” said the empress.
“No, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God,” said John.
“I will take away your treasures.”
“No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.”
“But I will drive you away from your friends and you will have no one left.”
“No, you cannot, for I have a Friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me.
I defy you, for there is nothing you can do to harm me.”

Imagine a person with that sort of view of his faith (if that does not strike a chord or set an example to which you would aspire) and the way in which he sees the world. For more, I’d also recommend his very famous Paschal (Easter) homily as well, which might rightly be put in similar pride of place for the Church as the US places the Gettysburg address. Any educational process includes an implicit or explicit evaluation of the value of the “alternatives” suggested. How would this parent instruct his children? In yesterday’s discussion JA offered:

That being said, I think the idea that there’s something wrong with indoctrinating a child with one religion is an important one. Now it’s one thing if you are the liberal sort who says this is our tradition and this is what we do and this is what it means to us… but it’s quite another if you are more dogmatic and say this is what’s true, period.

I don’t find any way that a person, who is like St. John can do anything other but state that his faith is “what’s true, period.” It is my contention that those who assent to the notion as expressed in the quote above have a tepid faith specifically not a faith such as expressed by St. John above.

Science and Religion: A Typological Exercise

A few weeks ago I posted several versions of an essay on Faith and Science, this is the start of another (which unlike the first has no “target” for publication). I may return and extend and refine it, but I have no definite plans to do so. In part that depends on whether this attempt engenders any response. In the spirituality class I am taking we read a number of St. Ephrem’s hymns “On Virginity” from the CWS collection. A few of these in the series concentrate not on virginity but St. Ephrem uses oil (olive) to indicate a “type” of Christ. In Syriac apparently oil, Messiah, and Anointing all come from the same root word, which is not the case with English (or Greek apparently). St. Ephrem also then lists a number of properties of oil, used in cooking, healing, for light and so on and illustrates how, because Christ does the same, that oil is a “type” reflecting and illuminating our understanding of Christ. This hymn thereby becomes a way in which common practice (contact with oil) in daily life can be uses to remind oneself, a trigger for reflections, and in general a way of connecting one’s daily life with one’s theological practice and belief. It can be noted that the common features and uses of oil come from the science and practices of the day.

So it might be an interesting project to do the same with modern science. Light was a common type of Christ in the days of St. Ephrem and the theological writers of late antiquity. Today, in late modernity, we can add to thse typological constructions. Today we might add things like the following:

  1. Light is simultaneously without confusing both particle and wave. Likewise, Christ was man and God. 
  2. Light illuminating an atom can stimulates it to a higher state. Again Christ’s actions in a man’s heart can stimulate it to seek (and attain) for higher things.
  3. This same light, further illuminating a population of exited (previously stimulated) atoms can cause the creation of more light, i.e., lasers. Atoms acting in concert, a type of “communion” through Christ (the light) and by Christ in communion a type of Christ and the Eucharist.
  4. Light exists in a sort of timeless fashion, particles travelling on null or light cones in Minkowski spacetimes interact with things “in time” yet for the massless particle no time passes. 
  5. Light through photosynthesis is the source from which oxygen and sugars comes into our world, that which we derive our very life depends. We similarly depend on Christ to “trample death by death” unlocking the gates of Hades.

That was the product of a just a few minutes reflection on light and modern scientific discoveries in a typological exercise. One could likely do similar exercises with our understanding of astrophysics, matter, the standard model and so on. So, here’s the question: Is science education so poor these days that these sorts of typological reflections are useless to the lay Christian? That is, in St. Ephrem’s day oil (of the olive) was in many ways akin to petroleum today, it was a linchpin of their economy. Olive oil then was used for light, food, health, lubrication and a myriad of other applications. It took no real specialized knowledge to understand this. People today have likely all heard of quantum mechanics (things have a wave/particle duality), that light excites atoms to higher states, that lasers exist, and even have heard via special relativity that time slows for fast moving objects and that via extrapolation coupled with remembering that nothing travels faster than light that perhaps time might essentially stop for objects travelling at the speed of light. So, there are two questions here. Is this sort of reflection (a) useful in helping people connect theological abstractions with things with which they are familiar and (b) perhaps have the further use of reducing what friction now exists between religion and science.

Considering Arguments Against Children

Pseudonymous Larry Niven at Rust Belt Philosophy has a short post in which the “right to avoid life” movement arises. Chantal Delsol points that this and similar movements are consequens of the rejection of taking the as axiomatic the ontological nature of human dignity in The Unlearned Lessons Of the Twentieth Century. I should note that a person “CM” is the author of these arguments and that in my reading of Mr Niven’s piece it is unclear what his stance is on this matter.

A relatively famous document begins:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Here we find the founders noting that some truths are not ones for which a foundational argument needs to be waged, they are self-evident. That the continuance of the human species is both good and a salutatory (if not to say necessary) attitude for humans to take seems to be another such self-evident statement. If you are a shark or a mosquito one must necessarily as such argue that continued existence of the shark and the mosquito is also good.

Mr Niven for CM offers two arguments against human reproduction, a harm based and a rights based argument. The harm based argument is easily countered. He offers that:

Choosing to reproduce, CM says, is tantamount to “imposing a lifetime’s worth of negative experiences on someone else.” And while one might agree that “everybody has negative experiences,” everybody capable of having negative experiences also has positive experiences: are these, too, “imposed”?

The abortion rights individuals hate the counter to this argument. Merely quiz the living, “Would you have never been born?” and oddly enough nobody whom we would term sane answers in the affirmative to that question. This particular argument is not uncommonly seen in the pro-abortion rhetorical quiver. The “his/her life would be too filled with hardship” and therefore termination is required. Yet oddly enough people with hard lives rarely venture that their lot would have been better in non-existence or death, but that sort of notion only resides with those people whose life has been in the main very soft and full of ease. Furthermore virtually everyone in the pre-industrial age had, by today’s standards, a life far harder than the hard life imagined for the incipient child.

The second argument is as follows:

For CM, no person has “interests prior to existing. Hence, biological children are always used as means to an end,” which, together with “the fact that people are brought into existence without their consent,” consists of a violation of the rights

This has two problems. One is a common rhetorical ploy found in philosophical circles the “if P then Q” where there is no logical connection between the premise and the conclusion. All things are a interest or a means to an end is not true. There are “ends”, which are neither. For a child can be see as in intrinsic good in and of itself. A child is good in an of itself, therefore creation of a new child is abstractly a good which is not a means (but an end). The second problem is in his notion of rights. CM suggests that the lack of consent implies a violation of rights. This might be OK if human beings were created ex nihilo with full faculties at creation, but that is not how it works. We have, well, these constructions known as “children” who are in developmental stages for at least a decade and a half. Consent is not a right children possess naturally because they are not equipped to handle those responsibilities at that time.

My Excuse for Light Blogging of Late

Much of my spare time until the month of August is done will be devoted to trying to make a dent in the large reading assignments handed out in a spirituality class I’m taking. We are getting pretty unrealistic (for the employed) reading loads with the caveat to “get familiar” and not read in depth each piece. So I’m doing a lot of skimming. We’ve been reading a lot of early patristic writings moving forward slowly through the historical documents from the church on this matter. We started with very early texts and some were partially gnostic … the line between gnostic and non-gnostic is not as sharp is pretended. An interesting tidbit from that week was that the conventional wisdom regarding gnostic texts is that they were suppressed by the church. This is a hard accusation to make seeing that most of these documents we have today have been preserved in monasteries.

The next week we read and discussed works of Origen, Evagrius and St. Gregory of Nyssa (his Life of Moses an allegorical reading of the history of Moses). St. Gregory remains overall probably the most prominent non-celibate church father. Even though married and not celibate he penned a famous defence of virginity, in praise of the celibate life. He was happily married, this was not a document motivated by any misogynistic strains. However, his wife and child (children?), died relatively young … this was an age where the average age for women was substantially lower than men because of the risks of childbirth … and children frequently died in their early years. We didn’t read this defence, it would be off topic, but it was mentioned in passing. We also read the St. John Cassian books/chapters from the Institutes on the eight passions. I do really like reading St. John’s writings, which I find refreshingly straightforward and practical.

For next time the large part of what we are reading comes from the pseudo-Macarian homilies, Isaac of Sketis (which I haven’t printed for reading yet), some letters of St. Antony, and Evagrius “on tempting thoughts”. I thought I’d finish tonight with a few observations on what I’ve garnered on monasticism in the early church (3rd century and going forward a few centuries).

What were these men and women doing going into the desert in small cenobitic communities and even solitary isolation? One analogy might be to today’s large scientific projects like the Manhattan or Genome project. This was a project to discover what regimen, what practices and what methods might be used to shape the human self to the ideal they and their community envisioned. It was a radical (or “extreme” in today’s reality TV vernacular) project in which these people, using themselves as both the subject and experimenters. You find a common element in their writing, the urge to observe others and “take the best examples” from each and try to emulate that quality. It seems obvious that we could learn more than a little from their centuries of experimentation. 

Food, Sex, and Virtue

Yesterday Rod Dreher wrote one of his little essays on pornography and its prevalence and its harmful effects.

The typical reaction from the left (and perhaps the libertarian) is to note something like this, defending by some statistical correlation with a drop in rape correlated with an increase in porn consumption. There are a few problems with the underlying groundwork that goes along with the statistical correlation, which is undoubtedly right even while it is wrong. There are three problems with this assumption.

  1. First the problem isn’t rooted in merely private pornographic consumption or access. We live in a pornographically soaked culture today. The notion that “less access” to the Internet means less porn is not exactly salient. Those with “less” access to porn are still soaked in sexually drenched imagery on a almost continual basis. All this study tells us is that continually tantalizing a population with subtle and not-so-subtle hints of pornography but not giving ready access to the same … causes an increase in rape. Consider for example, New England to the other colonies (or the other three folkways borrowing from Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed). Rape and other such crimes were down and there was less “drenching” in casual sexuality too. There are other factors besides porn if rape is you only concern.
  2. Which leads us to the second problem. Porn doesn’t come from the the foetid imagination of CGI artists. It’s production is not a victimless activity. One of the libertarian blogs I follow (a few weeks ago) noted that in towns where prostitution is legalized along with that there is a distinct rise in underground sexual slavery. Pornography production itself undoubtedly (I have no statistics dug up on this) has its own particular trafficking patterns worldwide. As well, even if rape is decreased … Mr Dreher notes: He said he worked in a counselor’s role there as well, and routinely dealt with students who were seriously messed up by their porn habits. For example, he said, he believed that many of the guys he worked with had no idea how to relate to women in a healthy way; the power of pornography, working consciously and subconsciously, caused the men to have badly distorted views of women, views that stunted and even paralyzed the men emotionally. Pornography, even if it reduces the incidence of rape, may ultimately still be more harmful from a societal standpoint than the alternative even if one does nothing to also reduce the rape (that is the prior and next points that I make here).
  3. St. John Cassian was a Christian theologian and monastic born in about 360. He was born in either modern Romania, some say France (Gaul). From there he traveled to Palestine and then spent time with the monastic communities near Sketis in the Egyptian desert. Some time later he (and a friend) returned eventually to the bringing the monastic tradition with him. St. John wrote extensively, somewhere I read his writings were almost as voluminous as St. Augustine’s. In his Institutes he devotes 8 books (of 12) to the eight passions. It was a later innovation to cast the eight passions noted by the desert communities as the well known 7 deadly sins. St. John cites the first passion as gluttony. Gluttony he teaches must be conquered before any other of the passions can and should be faced. By fasting (and prayer) one can face and defeat the body’s craving for food. After you have mastered and attained the self-discipline to master that craving and only then can the other passions be taken up (which isn’t to say you should just give them free reign of course in the meantime … just that you might not expect to attain any manner of complete victory before then). The point here is that we live in a culture which is drenched with food as well as porn. In the US Immediate gratification of our urges is, well, expected. The only thing that the culture would say is wrong with gluttony in fact is that it results in one being overweight. St. John teaches us that we really won’t be successful in facing the second passion (sexual sin), even as a culture until we’ve mastered our gluttony.

Science and Religion: A Historical Review

This is the “long” or expanded version of the faith/science paper for our Church newsletter. It was 4 times longer than requested. I’m posting it here for comments (and a link to the same is provided for interested readers of the newsletter article). The short version which was “submitted for publication” can be read here on-line.

Science and religion

Because the terms science and religion are enormously broad topics they need to be restricted. In this discussion science will refer to the elementary forces and makeup of nature, which what was before the modern era known as natural science and which today is called physics. Religion in this discussion will limit itself to Christian theology and will focus on how that interacts with natural science.

Natural science has gone through three major stages since the study of such matters became systematic and a subject which today would be considered a science. In what follows these stages will be discussed in turn and the relationship of religion with science examined.

Stage 1: A Geometric understanding of Nature.

From the time of the Greek golden age through the 16th century the foundations of our concept of nature and its underlying principles were very different than today. Throughout that period the understanding of nature and its conceptual foundations was based on pure geometry. Study of Euclid and the Elements were crucial not just for mathematical pedagogical reasons, but because the understanding of geometry was seen as key to understanding how nature was constructed. Aristotelian cosmology and Pythagorean mysticism are two examples of how this view of nature expressed itself. Writings from this period commonly allude to geometrical and numerical proportions as significant data. Today it is a common modern error to deride this view of nature as not being driven at all by experiment and observations. For example, Aristotle taught that an object naturally graduated to its “natural” motion, terrestrial objects naturally were at rest and astronomic bodies were naturally in motion. Today we view this as wrong, e.g., Newton’s law that “objects in motion tend to stay in motion and those at rest stay at rest.” Yet the Aristotelian view corresponds and agrees with observation. That is the objects you put in motion come to rest, e.g., throw a baseball and you observe that it comes to rest. Terrestrial objects (baseballs) set in motion do in fact come to rest and the planetary bodies (planets and moons) are observed to remain in motion.

It was during the first four centuries after Christ that orthodox Christian theology arrived at a basic understanding of the relationships between God, man, and the world which were made explicit and hold with some minor variations to this day. The apostolic practices handed down from the first century were explained in philosophical and concrete terms and placed into the contextual understanding of the world that existed at that time. Origen, an Alexandrian patristic theologian explicitly tied his theology with philosophy during an age when philosophy and natural philosophy were not separate fields of study. Consider that in Alexandria, Plotinus was a leading Alexandrian neo-Platonic scholar and a contemporary of Origen. Origen and Plotinus and their students interacted directly attending to each others talks and published works. This was possible because the theological views of nature and relationships of God with the universe was consonant with the natural philosophy of the time.

Stage 2: An Analytic view of Nature.

Between the time of Galileo and Newton the geometrical conception of nature shifted to an analytic one. The laws describing how the motion of objects were governed moved to one described by formulae for objects and forces between them, e.g., Newton’s three laws of motion or later the Maxwell equations describing electromagnetic behavior. Rene Descartes laid essential foundations for methods of replacing compass/ruler inspired geometrical methods with analytic ones, i.e., using algebraic descriptions and manipulations to describe and prove geometrical concepts. This inspired a general movement of mathematical techniques and ways of thinking from the constructive geometric view to an analytic one. By the time Newton published the Principia the revolution was complete. With his development of calculus and the later work of men like Johann Gauss the analytical and mathematical approaches were immensely successful in describing the natural world.

In this time period Christian theology (in the West) also underwent something of a revolution. It was this time that the theological turmoil of Reformation and counter-Reformation occurred. Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, and other Protestants as well as Loyola, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and other Roman Catholics redefined what Christianity meant for the West. The current and cross-currents of theological polemics between these parties honed and sharpened (hardened?) the particular theological tenets and both Protestant and Roman Christians. During this time, as well, the relationship between natural philosophy and theological thought changed to one of separation. There was a parting of ways. Less and less was the Origen/Plotinus relationship the norm. While Christian priests, such as Mendeleev and Priestly, contributed to science it became more and more rare for mainstream theology to confront or interact with modern natural science. Furthermore the creation accounts in Genesis (based in part on a Babylonian cosmology) led some theologians to oppose and confront scientific views of cosmology, a practice which continues apace today. In general theological accounts dealing with nature had less and less real connection with the scientific understandings of the day.

Stage 3: Symmetry Governs Natural Law.

In the 20th century mathematical developments laid the groundwork for another major shift in our basic understanding principles of how the universe is constructed. The mathematical inventive work by Emmy Noether, William Hamilton, and Bernhard Riemann yielded a revolution of our understanding of the universe. These connections where first exploited by Einstein, Kaluza, and Klein who expounded and made clear those principles on which we base our understanding of the universe. Geometry and a mathematical concept known as symmetry [see below for a very abbreviated summary of symmetry and its connection to modern physics] today provide the conceptual framework on which natural science finds its grounding. In 1954 Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills defined a non-Abelian gauge theory which became the Standard Model. The Standard Model is the current best description of the basic particles and well actually three of the four known forces in nature. In some ways this may be regarded as the return (revenge?) of the much earlier geometric worldview because it is based on symmetry. Geometry then has returned and again today drives our understanding of nature.

A second striking development has also occurred in our physical understanding of nature, that is the quantum understanding of nature. In quantum mechanics concrete things like particles and electromagnetic waves are replaced by things called probability amplitudes and S-matrices. The remarkable success of quantum mechanics has caused something of a crises in the philosophy of science. There is, currently, no satisfactory explanation for how a quantum understanding of nature and be viewed as a real view of nature. Many physicists duck approaching a realistic concrete description of nature with an approach described as positivism. In this view a natural scientist (physicist) is not undertaking to describe reality but instead is only engaged in the prediction of experimental results, an example a proponent of this view is Stephen Hawking but he is certainly not alone. This is a massive retreat from what natural science had undertaken at the outset 3000 years previously.

Yet, theology has not advanced into the epistemic vacuum left by this retreat of physics (and the sciences in general). In part this is part a symptom of a general trend. An underlying cause for this trend may be that generalists today are more and more rare. As the body of work comprising every discipline has grown it has become more and more it is harder for people to do significant work in more than one field because mastery just one discipline is takes significant effort. In fact, sub-field specialization has become the norm, in a time when cross-fertilization between fields of science, the arts, and theology is becomes more and more important. Theology and Physics have both been subjected to this trend.

20th and 21st century theology has not (as yet) really found natural science a subject with which it needs to confront. With a few exceptions like John Polkinghorne, who was an important theoretical physicist and now is a Anglican priest and theologian, little theological thought is being put into trying to reunite and reconcile natural science with theology (this is something) of an exaggeration as Fr. Polkinghorne did chair a conference on that topic and clearly somebody besides he attended. But this is certainly not a leading problem from the point of view of the theological community today. However this problem is precisely the problem that confronts the so-called “division” between faith and science today.
Some Final Thoughts

Natural science over the past 3000 years has gone the distance, from a geometrically motivated view of the universe it traversed through an analytic approach and subsequently returned to a more subtle but nevertheless distinctively geometrically motivated view. In the first period there was no tension between theology and science. During the analytic period, a separation occurred which continues through today. Additionally the scope of what natural science recognizes as within its purview has shrunk. At the same time, the complexity and scope of what natural science (physics) does understand regarding the large and small scale structure of space-time and the natural order is far greater than it was in the 3rd century. The development of understanding that asserts where and how the Trinitarian God stands in relationship to man and His universe which is congruent and in accord with the modern ideas of how space-time is framed should be regarded as an important and incomplete problem for theology today.
A Short note on Symmetry.

Symmetry is a simple mathematical notion. In short a symmetry is a transformation of a geometrical object which leaves it unchanged. Rotating a square 90 degrees is a symmetry transformation, that is after rotation the square is unchanged. Space or space+time symmetry transformations are changes such as rotations, translations and the like. Emmy Noether proved mathematically that for “sensible” theories of motion that every continuous symmetry gives rise to a corresponding conserved quantity. Translational symmetry of space-time by Ms Noether’s theorem thus gives rise to conservation of momentum. Translational symmetry here just means the laws of physics remain unchanged if the origin of your coordinate system is shifted. Rotational symmetry yields conservation of angular momentum. Rotational symmetry means that the laws of nature are unchanged if one spins your coordinates. This is the essential point. To restate, every continuous symmetry (any transformation leaving space and laws unchanged) is connected to a conservation law.

Oscar Klein and Theodor Kaluza considered what it woud mean if at each point in space-time an additional “small” unseen dimension was added, specifically a tiny circle. If one then claims that with this space there might also be a new corresponding symmetry. That is to say that in this new 5 dimensional space-time (3 dimensions of space + the new circle + time makes 5), this symmetry claims that the choice of coordinates one uses in each (little) circle does not affect the equations describing physical laws, i.e., there is a symmetry in the “circle” direction. This condition gives rise to a general constraint condition equations of motion in this space-time and a conserved quantity. What made this interesting was that the resultant constraint equations were identical to Maxwell’s equations which describe electromagnetism. Because of that equivalence to Maxwell’s equations the natural interpretation of the conserved quantity becomes conservation of electric (and magnetic) charges.

When Yang-Mills defined their Standard model that describes the three of the four forces they did so by by replacing the Kaluza-Klein circle at each point with a much more complicated space and then demanding an demanding the analogous symmetry relationship. This yielded analogous conservation laws as well and constraint equations which in turn (by picking the “right” structure to the “complicated space”) are found to describe three of the four fundamental forces of Nature and yield conservation laws for their respective charges. The four forces of nature are the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and gravity. Gravity is not reconciled with the Standard model and this reconciliation remains an area of active research. General Relativity is the geometrical model based on exactly these sorts of methods that describes gravity.

Further Reading

Michael Polanyi by Mark T. Mitchell ISI Press.

Mr Tompkins in Paperback by George Gamow

Faith and Religion: (very) preliminary first draft

This is the first draft of an essay for our parish newsletter. The topic is on “science and religion.” Given my short “dread bullet list” of ideas on the essay of last week, Brandon (of Siris) suggested helpfully that I try to make clear in the essay what specifically of “religion” and “science” I’ll be trying to identify and discuss, as both topics are huge and more than a little slippery. There was another suggestion that the “three stages” seen so far in our understanding of nature (the second bullet list item) was the most interesting. So without more ado, here is a preliminary draft, i.e., it is a little incomplete … again however I offer it at this point for additional comments.

Science and religion

Before embarking on a discussion of science and religion it is useful to set parameters and boundaries on the scope of the discussion. In this discussion “science” will primarily mean what was up through the modern era known as natural science, specifically the elementary forces and makeup of nature. In the modern era specialization has reduced this to being primarily Physics. For the religious matters in this regard the discussion will limit itself to Christian theology especially concentrating on the interactions with those aspects of natural science under consideration. Natural science or Physics has gone through three major revolutions since the study of such matters became the systematic study of anything that might today be considered science. In the following these three phases of our scientific worldview regarding the nature of Nature will be explored and then cross currents and implications for that worldview on Christian theology will be investigated.

Stage 1: A Geometric understanding of Nature.

From the time of the Greek golden age through the 16th century the foundations of our conceptions of nature and its underlying principles was very different than today’s. Throughout that period the understanding of nature and its conceptual foundations was based on geometry. Study of Euclid and the Elements were crucial not just for mathematical pedagogical reasons, but because the understanding of geometry was seen as key to understanding how nature was constructed. Aristotelian cosmology and Pythagorean mysticism are two examples of how this worked out. Modern misconceptions of this worldview deride it as a science not driven by experiment and observations, but that is a misconception. For example, Aristotle taught that an object naturally graduated to its “natural” motion, terrestrial objects naturally were at rest and astronomic bodies were naturally in motion. This corresponds and agrees with observation. Terrestrial objects set in motion do in fact come to rest.

It was during this time, especially in the second through fifth centuries that orthodox Christian theology was made explicit and an understanding of the relationships between God, man, and the world were made explicit. It was in this period that the apostolic practices handed down from the first century were explored and explained in philosophical and ?? terms. Origen, an influential Alexandrian theologian who followed St. Justin Martyr and explicitly tied theology with philosophy did so in an age when philosophy and natural philosophy (that it so say science) were not separate undertakings. Origen for example and Plotinus and their students attended to the discourse of the other and interacted. Plotinus was a leading Alexandrian neo-Platonic scholar and Origen the leading Alexandrian theologian. Metropolitan John Zizioulas attests that the theologians through the Nicean period managed to acheive a synthesis between the Hebrew, Greek, and Christian views of the truth, i.e., truth as historical narrative, as eternal ideal, and as through the singular person of Jesus. At the same time, the theological conceptions of nature and its relationship with God was consonant with the natural philosophy of the time. God dwelling “out of time” before and eschatologicaly did not at that time do violence to natural science. Look at for example, Aristotelean notions of cosmic versus terrestrial matter, one naturally coming to rest and the astonomic matter naturally remaining in motion. Matter was ontologically divided into categories already, time could as well have similar divisions.

Stage 2: An Analytic view of Nature.

Yet our vew of nature changes. Between the time of Galileo and Copernicus this conception of nature shifted. The understanding of natural laws by which motion and objects interactions were governed moved to one described by analytic descriptions of interactions, e.g., Newton’s three laws of motion or later the Maxwell equations describing electromagnetic interactions. By the time of Newton, 150 years later no new experimental arrived that would distinguish between the older and the new view. Yet as mathematical techniques and ways of thinking moved from the constructive geometric view to an analytic one. Descartes laid essential foundations in methods of replacing compass/ruler driven geometrical methods with analytic ones, i.e., using algebraic descriptions and manipulations to describe geometrical ideas. By the time of Newton and his publishing the Principia the revolution was complete … and with his development of calculus and the later work of men like Johann Gauss mathematical methods applied to natural philosophy, especially Physics, became completely overshadowed replaced the earlier geometrical methods.

In this time period part of Christian theology also underwent something of a revolution. The Western church underwent the theological turmoil of Reformation and counter-Reformation. [ … expand on this + add other concepts where theology through this period connected with our view of the universe ]

Stage 3: In which Symmetry Governs Natural Law.

Yet again, mathematical developments laid the groundwork for another major shift in our basic understanding of the underlying principles of how the universe is constructed. The mathematical inventive work by Emmy Noether, William Hamilton, and Bernhard Riemann yielded the revolution of our understanding of the universe which was explained first by Albert Einstein, and Felix Klein first expounded and made clear the modern principles on which we base our understanding of the universe. Then 40 or so years later when Chen Ning Yang and Robert Mills used non-Abelian gauge theories to outline the Standard Model which is the current model on which our understanding of the basic particles and interactions in nature are based. In some ways this may be regarded as the return (revenge?) of the much earlier geometric worldview. Symmetries now drive our understanding of nature [see below for a short description of symmetry as a way to view nature.]

A second striking development has also occurred in our physical understanding of nature, that is the quantum understanding of nature. [ … is this important? Free will -> choice? ]

[ … my claim here is that theology, thus far, with few exceptions like Polkingham aren’t trying to address Christian theology in the light of this new view of the universe. Back this up. Note as well, few in other disciplines, philosophy for example are not really either, most are mired in an analytic worldview that has been set aside by current Physical intuitions and practice. ]

Some Final Thoughts

[ wrap up with avenues for future

A Short note on Symmetry.

Symmetry is a simple mathematical notion. In short a symmetry is a tranformation of a geometrical object which leaves it unchanged. Rotating a square 90 degrees is a symmetry transformation, that is after rotation makes no difference to the square. Space or space+time symmetry transformations are changes such as rotations, translations and the like. Emmy Noether proved mathematically that for “sensible” theories of motion that every symmetry gives rise to a “corresponding” conserved quantity. Translational symmetry of space-time (that is the laws of physics remain unchanged if the origin of your coordinate system is shifted 10 feet over) gives rise to conservation of momentum. Rotational symmetry yields conservation of angular momentum. Oscar Klein and Theodor Kaluza suggested the idea of placing at each point in space-time an additional “small” dimension, like a small circle. If one suggests that there is a new symmetry to this 5 dimensional space-time in which the choice of coordinates at each circle in space gives rise to a constraint condition in the description of theories in this space-time. Those constraint equations are identical to Maxwell’s equations describing electromagnetism. Modern theories describing the four forces of matter are derived from instead of putting a simple circle at each point putting a more complicated space at each point and demanding an analagous symmetry relation.

On Science and Religion

Over the next week or so I have to write a short essay for our parish newsletter on the topic “Science and Religion.” I’m going to do the work online here “in public” as it were and see if the comment process can get me a better essay. Anyhow … to start the dread bullet list, i.e., ideas and brainstorming about things I might discuss.

  • It might be interesting to mention the two tensions that have historically, especially in the West, influenced some of the reflections of the religious though on science. St. Augustine, as noted by Mr Polanyi, had an overall negative effect on science. Mr Polanyi notes that this was because of some statements by St. Augustine that science should restrict itself to those studies which bring us closer to God. Yet, St. Augustine writes as well in his Confessions that the Nature itself worships the Creator though our understanding of its workings, intricacies, and beauty. It may be that the former statement took a wrong turn because the latter sentiment was forgotten or misplaced.
  • Three major revolutions have marked our deepest physical understanding of how to view the underlying nature of the material world. Sometime between the Galilean/Copernican era and Newton’s Principia, the older notion of a geometrical order to the universe was dominant. At that time it was the Pythagorean philosophy of science dominated by geometrical concepts. This was replaced by a algebraic interaction view, with Newton and later Gauss making that explicit with the development of calculus. In the early part of the 20th century this too was replaced in turn by the idea that symmetries (gauge theories) shape the structure of physical interactions and relations. Patristic theology arose in the context of a Pythagorean view of nature. Did and does that theology depend at all on our conception of the underlying structure of nature? How might it have to adapt and change as our notions of the universe change?
  • Physical theories of the Universe give us a notion of the large scale structure of space-time, especially dynamical aspects for how to make sense of it. Mathemeticians have solved the Poincare conjecture giving us a classification of all the possible ways in which our three (apparent) spatial dimensions might be constructed. Additionally quantum mechanics yields notions of free-will or indeterminacy at the atomic level. Yet theological discussions, as far as I’m aware, haven’t really confronted the implications of a God existing out of time and what that means with respect to a quantum mechanical relativistic space-time.
  • Eugene Wigner penned a paper on the unreasonable nature of the success of mathematics in describing the universe. It isn’t just that we can use math to describe things we already know, it’s that math so used is unreasonably successful. The mathematical ansatze (guesses) that Newton used to describe planetary motion can without change work in regimes many orders of magnitude in precision and scale afield from the scale of the data supporting them. Mr Wigner did not connect the unreasonable success of mathematics to theology, Scripture, or God. However, that connection is an easy one to make, Genesis 1 with its ontological ordering of nature suggests that nature itself is comprehensible by the mind of man. That nature is unreasonably well described by mathematics, which in turn is an essential part of the mind of man, might suggest that this is not unintentional.

Looking Back at the March Forward

I’ve begun reading John Behr’s (so far) two volume series (three are reported as planned) subtitled Formation of Christian Theology. The first volume, in soft cover from SVS Press, is entitled The Way to Nicaea. This books covers aspects of the formation of Christian theology, focusing on the development of the answer to Jesus query to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Volume 2 is split into two books and covers in some detail the controversies surrounding the two councils which developed the Nicene creed.

The first chapter of this book begins with a look at how the Scriptural canon for the Christian church developed and was set. There were a lot of alternative canonical choices at the end of the second century when the canon was set. But the result, to summarize Behr, was that two key criteria were used to select what books and epistles were included in the New Testament canon. They are that the books chosen were “according the the Scriptures” and that the cross (the passion) was central. The phrase “according the the Scriptures” meant specifically that the acts and narrative account in the selected book connected these actions with the accounts and prophecies of the Old Testament. This meant that books like the Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic works were excluded. Behr defends his interpretation of this development of canon by examining the methods and arguments used by St. Irenaeus in discussing various heresies of his day at the close of the 2nd century.

David Schraub blogging at the Debate Link, dislikes the term “Judeo-Christian”. This term admittedly can be misused. The above historical notes demonstrate how this term is at the same time correct and how the traditions diverged. For certainly in the context of investigating first and second century theological currents and ideas that term is relevant. Throughout the first century the majority of Christians were Jews who felt that Jesus was in fact the awaited Messianic figure, the fulfillment of Scriptural promise. At the same time, there is here a key difference which will form the basis possibly for the contention that this term does not make sense. Christians over the centuries following embarked on a program to reinterpret the Jewish Scriptural canon through the “lens of the cross”, i.e., via the life and passion of Jesus. That is they re-examined and reinterpreted, often as “type”, events and prophecies of Scripture to be interpreted specifically in the context of Jesus message, and his crucifixion and resurrection. Christian theology at the end of the second century defined itself and its theological methods in the light of Jewish writing. At the same time however, it was beginning to highlight the differences by beginning a program of returning to and examining that same canon in a radically different way (although it might be noted that “different” way was himself a 1st century Jew).

Atheist & Christian: Back and Forth A Bit

One of the arguments that atheists often bring forth is that the Christian notion of God is logically inconsistent. 1+1+1=1 they will point out doesn’t logically make sense. Well, on the other hand a fundamental particle being simultaneously a mathematical point and and extended object is logically inconsistent as well. Yet the latter is presently our best understanding of how nature presents itself, quantum objects, leptons and quarks that is to say matter is in fact point-like and extended at the same time. The atheists failing is that they, when confronted with the first logical inconsistency insist is it fundamental and when confronted with the second, insist that the human mind and our learning will encompass and explain the paradox more fully. I would suggest that the latter confidence can equally be applied to the former and that if they cannot yet understand it, that is because they are not engaging their imagination and optimism in the same way for reasons which have little to do with the problem posed.

Yet at the same time, there is an accusation of lack of imagination which might be returned to the court of the Christian believer. Modern physics has deepened our understanding concerning space and time. Applying the Minkowoski metrics to a four dimensional Riemann manifold describing space time as governed by a dynamical equation by Einstein in his proposal of General Relativity is a powerful way of envisioning our Universe. Similarly, Yang-Mills gauge theories, either classical or quantized provide a beautiful geometrically motivated understanding of the forces and small scale structure of space time. Ernst Mach a physicist and philosopher, prior to Einstein considered abstract ideas regarding motion and inertia, with the idea suggested that a single object in space (in the absence of any other “things”) has no inertia. In fact motion can only be described as a relation between two things. Christian conceptions place God, or at least his essence if not His energies following St. Gregory Palamas, outside of time. Certainly God prior to creation and the eschaton are placed by theologian to be outside of time. Christians have, as far as I know, not connected either large-scale or small scale (Minkowski-Riemann space-time or Yang-Mills quantization of U(1)xSU(2)xSU(3) gauge theory) to the notion of what “out of time” means. For myself, while I’ve thought a little about this and have nothing useful to report as yet, this book by John Pokinghorne might spur some ideas, The God of Hope and the End of the World. it should be noted that Mr Polkinghorne was an accomplished theoretical physicist before he became a Anglican priest and theologian.

Humans endow the world with meaning. Semantic content flows from our every thought and our conversation finds expression and meaning in semantic intercourse with others. Yet, in a purely material world semanatic content is meaningless. A pattern of electro-chemical discharges invoking vibrational patterns in the air is devoid of meaning. Yet humans call that speech and embue it with semantic import in a way which can be translated to word, text, and image. Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge recounts that when reading his morning correspondence which arrives from friends and peers the world over is unaware during the act of reading the language in which the text he reads is transmitted (obviously he is very fluent in a number of different languages). When he wishes to share something, for example, with his son, who only knows English, he has to check to see if the letter or passage of interest is in English or not. He is not, in the act of reading, consciously aware of the langauge which he is reading. On this matter theists and atheists point the “lack of imagination” finger at the other, the latter insisting that the semantic boostrap from the material to the semantic is lacking in the imagination of the former and the former insisting that the latter cannot imagine how the semantic boostrap itself might be the essence of the soul.

Being and All That

In a fundamental way the church fathers and tradition has rejected the traditional attribute driven ontology. Long ago I read a presentation describing the difference between Platonic and Aristotelian ontological methods by comparing how they attached, manipulated, and viewed attribute attachments to ontological categories. The Nicene fathers and the theological/philosophical aftermath of that 4th century upheaval rejected that and arrived at a new conception. Their notion was that ontological objects and categories are not defined by their attributes but defined instead by the qualities and aspects of their relationships with other objects and categories. Existence of a thing depends crucially not on its substance of qualities (attributes) but on the aspects of its relationships with others things. A chair is not a chair because it has chair-like attributes but because people (or I for example) have a relationship with it that categorizes it as chair.

I’d like to examine a few consequences of how that works especially in a Christian context.

  • A primary example of this is that the ontology of God, the Trinity is to be understand relationally. We arrive at our understanding of God not by understanding God as such, or as Father, Son, and Spirit by examing their attributes, but instead by understanding the relationship between the three. Put more radically, God’s existence depends on its relational nature between the hypostasis.
  • Consider the radical science fiction notion of transference of person from one body to either a machine or another body. There is difficulty in deciding where and when “transference” is valid especially in the case of information or ability loss. But if existence and identity is defined relationally does that work? It seems to me likely that it does and perhaps avoids some of the ambiguities and difficulties that arise in the attribute model.
  • In the context of abortion a lot of the arguments I’ve seen center on attributes of being. Specifically what attributes the fetus must obtain in order to qualify as person. This is often state in terms of intellectual or brain development or an attribute of “independent” living or existence, i.e., viability. However that existence of the fetus might just as well be defined relationally. In the relational model it is a little more difficult to distinguish infanticide from abortion. However, another aspect of relational ontological thinking arises … that of the disordered relationship. Abortion (or miscarriage) can perhaps be viewed as a disorder in the relationship between mother and fetus.
  • Consider as well, the marriage/homosexuality discussion in the context of existence and a ontology based on connection and relationships. That is perhaps a fruitful avenue for later discussion. I think it’s clear that both sides of the question can be presented in this methodology and unlike abortion the resolution is not so clearly biased (as in the case of abortion there is a clear bias against abortion in my view with this ontological method). The real question is by framing the question in this way, can some of the heat be abstracted from the discussion? For that might be a very useful thing to do at the very least.

On Prayer

Well, that makes it all simple … I guess I can toss that book (Wickedness) by Ms Midgley. Mr Niven offers that:

The problem of evil, for instance, has often been reduced to one and only one issue, that of unanswered prayers (see e.g. here)

Well, one can come up with a few notions, which may not be “new” but it’s unclear on why that is per se problematic.

  1. From Scripture, John 9 offers As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
  2. There is a story of a Papal representative referring to Acts 3:6 who when referring to the rich appointments in the Vatican city noted that “no longer can we say, we “have no silver and gold” … the retort as it goes is that no longer either can the representative say, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”
  3. When the disciples failed to cast out an unclean spirit, (Mark 9) Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.”
  4. Genesis 1 as discussed by Kass in The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis points out that one of the lessons of this first story is that God’s universe as created is intelligible. 
  5. Consider the following. A group of people in a room are trying to determine if they can communicate with a person outside of room. Some individuals think they can communicate with that outside individual. One faction in the room devises a well constructed double blind experiment to see if the communication works. The experiment “fails.” That however proves nothing meaningful, in that it assumes that the exterior entity is unaware of the experiment. Or more plainly, what does a double blind experiment mean that must needs “blind” God?
  6. Finally, examine the action of a parent. Parents do not fulfill every request of a child. Every stumble, every fall. If a parent was to catch and hand hold every matter a child faced, that child would not grow up. Augustine coined the phrase (I think), that “happy fall”. 

What is the point of these items?

  1. God’s view is larger in scope than one man’s view. A person may endure hardship to bring out the good in those around him. There may be other reasons.
  2. It is often said that works of prayer are rare these days because the work of prayer matches the faith. This is not an age of faith and prayer. Likewise ascetic struggle is not common likewise the fruits of prayer are less clear.
  3. Consider a nerfed world in which every prayer is answered and no harm can be done to another. What moral development might we expect in men? What need would a man have to be good.
  4. Some offer a “scientific” study (based on unusual assumptions regarding God) proving that prayer doesn’t work. Another has a large number of individuals who witness to the benefit of a lifetime of ascetic struggle which includes numerous personal encounters with God. 
  5. Finally, this notion of prayer as a mechanism to “fix things in your life which are wrong or are painful” is flawed. Prayer is fundamentally a reach for communion with the Creator, a striving for theosis … not a magical incantation to make your life materially better.

Word and Meaning: Sin and Mystery

Last week an interesting conversational point arose in our discussions after liturgy. An initial Chinese translation of the Bible translated “sin” in a legalistic way. That is a transgression, breaking laws for which penal or other atonement is required. A newer translation which connects with Chinese culture much stronger and likely hits the real meaning of the word. That word translated back into English would be that sin is best translated in Chinese as disharmony. I think the notion that sin=disharmony is natural. My “working definition” of the word has been sin is “that which separates us from God” … which in my view links far better to disharmony that to a “breaking the rules” definition.

Ann, blogging as Weekend Fisher at the eponymous blog, writes about the perception of Puritans for being joyless and very deontological in their habits. If the Puritans were actually joyless and as serious as many of their chroniclers and history seems to paint them, then the root of that problem was that their notion of sin was flawed in the same was as the above translation. However, from the exterior that may be hard to judge. Very often “rules” seems to dominate a culture and time or religion when from the interior that isn’t really the case. As an extreme case, monastic rules of order can seem very deontological and rules based, but that isn’t necessarily the case in practice.

Ann asks:

If we start with a set of laws like the Ten Commandments, then the Puritans make sense. But what if the true foundation is much more basic than that? What if the foundation of morality is when God looked at creation and declared that it was good? What if a love of the good is the foundation of morality? What if the two greatest commandments — love of God and love of neighbor — are meant to remind us of that?

The Pslamist writes and the Fathers seem to repeatedly concur that the “Fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom.” That is, that “love of the good” (a very Greek concept) is not the starting point, but that the Fathers travel very quickly from a starting point of the Fear of God which leads them to God’s love and from thence to personal humility which forms a grounding plane for their normative ethical behavior. My question for Ann would be how ‘love of the good’ which is precisely aligned with Platonic notions of a foundation for ethics if not a basis for almost all the philosophical content derived from Platonic ideas, e.g., virtue ethics … how does that separate from Greek ethics? Where does it ultimately differ? Is it merely a different idea of what constitutes the good? Is that enough? I suggested some time ago, that Christian ethics are pneumatoligical, based on our being inspired by the Spirit. Is that wrong? Is it connected or not?

Mystery. Religion uses the term mystery a lot. Trinity is a mystery. Sometimes it is said that Jesus dual nature as God and man kept distinct and separate is a mystery. Eucharist and God’s participation is a mystery. I offer that in this modern world this term is misunderstood today, one might blame Edgar Allen Poe, whom if my schoolday memory is correct founded the literary genre of the “mystery” novel. Mystery in that sense is something not understood. A popular modern notion of “mystery” is something which cannot be understood rationally. And in part this is right. But in a better sense, the related word “mystical” should be examined. A mystical cult or religion is one in which the divine is experienced personally. Mystics of any cult, be it Sufi, Christian, Hindu, or Bhuddist seek personal contact and experience of the divine. Mysticism means personal experience. The Trinity in the Christian religion is a mystery. That doesn’t mean that it is meant to be “taken on faith” where faith itself means the simple notion of believing in that which is not seen or known. The Trinity is something which we are meant to personally connect with on a personal level.

Ultimately however these two meanings, the classical mystery story or mystery in science and the mystic/mystery of religion do connect. The mystery story is solved when the characters experience and come to fuller understanding of the crime in question. The scientific mystery is resolved when the scientist (personally) experiences and understands the resolution of the paradox or that which was in question. Religious mystery is a thing which cannot be transmitted by word and reason. It can only be hinted at with word and reason. We like to think that science too is like that … but most of it is not. Science, or most of it, too is a field which needs to be experienced to be transmitted. Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge writes of the unexplainable skill or riding a bike. I found it amusing that his description of how we turn a bike was incorrect. Mr Polanyi offers that to turn a bike while riding, we turn the handlebars in the direction we which to turn in a fashion which is hard to describe.  Yet unless you are going very slowly countersteering is how a bike is turned. The point is that much more than is normally admitted of science and scientific advancement is an art. Becoming a scientist is an apprenticeship, filled with the passing on of personal knoweldge and experience, transmission of the mysteries of the field, that is required.

Logic and Ontology: The Dual Nature of Man/God and Matter Wave/Particle

In a recent extended discussion of a Christian apologetic nature, the claim was made that Jesus dual nature of being God and man is logically impossible. I think the argument that this is in fact logically possible is independent of the actual Scriptural/doctrinal basis for the claims that He does in fact posses such dual nature. I suggested at the time that the situation found in nature regarding the dual nature of matter as wave and particle has an incomplete logical resolution but which suggests a similar solution might be found for one person being both God and man.

The essential logical problem is categorical or ontological in nature. A wave is an extended effect, a point-like particle is is not extended. The notion that something can be extensive and localized at the same time is a inconsistent or illogical. It’s akin to suggesting a number can be composite, prime, and/or a unit at the same time. However, the notion that this illogical turns out to be the error, that is to say the error is not that a thing cannot be a extended and point-like at the same time … for the universe is demonstrates that the error is not that this is impossible but that it is observed. Whether it is illogical or not is irrelevant, it is in fact the case that particles are wave-like and point-like at the same time. The error is in the ontological notion of “what is matter”. Matter exists in a different way altogether. Matter is best given a description which actually does posses these qualities simultaneously. The technical details of that particular construction (and its own peculiar limitations are not salient at this point, but for some non-technical descriptions lay-level I’d recommend Gamow’s Mr Tompkins in Paperback or the more recent release of that for an introduction).

My suggestion is that the God/man duality problem is similarly solved. That is the suggestion is that a being cannot be man and God at the same time. The error is perhaps in what you mean by “a being” and not that the notion of having that particular dual nature is impossible. In the matter example it was the notion of what constituted matter that was in error. Perhaps what is in error here the conception of personhood or being, that is what it means to be man or God. Metropolitan John Zizioulas in Being as Communion discusses the development of the idea of person though antiquity into the developments required by theological developments that unfolded in describing precisely the issue of the dual nature of Christ and an understanding of Trinity. In Classical Greece, person was had a dramatic understanding, that is one’s person related to one’s role in family and society. In Rome, a juridical understanding prevailed, that is that a person primarily meant one’s legal standing within society was how personhood was identified. In the fourth century theologians in Alexandria and the Cappodocian Fathers arrived at an idea of hypostasis as person. This notion of hypostasis in fact aligns quite well with some modern notions of personhood, Vladimir Lossky goes so far as to suggest that the modern notion of person derives from the developments by the Cappadocian fathers, but for myself I wonder if that can be established. That is to say, that the notions of person are in fact very similar and from that evidence the hypothesis that they are related is suggestive but the development might be independent but arriving at the same conclusion.

Within the modern notions of person, consider the science fiction/fantasy notions involving transfer of person from one body to another (or to a machine). The hypostasis or person is not directly tied to body. In stories, such as Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels persons can be “uploaded” or transferred from one person to another. This idea makes narrative sense in the context of our modern notion of personhood. A friend or mine (and as well my experience with my children) noted that infants from the very first moment, to his surprise demonstrate and evidence distinct personality. One might suspect that personality develops later in life, but from the first moments an infant expresses a distinct personality.

Hypostasis is separate from memory. If I lose or gain memories, I remain myself. The kernel of what constitutes the unique hypostasis or self may not be identifiably definable in a propositional manner but if one turns that around and defines the unique person as the kernel of person which is distance from particulars of memory, ability, and body. So the, what is occurring in the notion that Christ has dual nature as God and man. Simply that God (or one of the three hypostasis within the triune Christian conception of the Godhead) condescended to allow his hypostasis to be expressed in a particular man, Jesus. That is, Jesus developed into a grown man from infancy whose kernel of self was God translated to a (fully) human person just in the same manner as from a narrative perspective one might find a person “uploaded” to a machine in a sci-fi story.

The point is, while the factual details might be disputed, i.e., non-Christians in particular might dispute that this true and a accurate account of what happened from a logical standpoint what is being claimed makes logical sense. The hypostasis or kernel or personhood from one being was translated from one body to another body. If it makes sense in the context of narrative it makes sense in the context of Christ.

Holy Week & Eastern Traditions: Bridegroom Matins Reprised

As an introduction for those of Western traditions or are unfamiliar with the Eastern Christian traditions, during our Holy Week this week I thought it might be useful to summarize what we do at our Church during this week and some of my thoughts and impressions during the week.

Tonight we celebrated the last of the three Bridegroom Matins services. Wiki informs us in the post on Holy Week (and the East) that tonight in Greece a significant (majority?) of the sex trade industry workers attend this service. Why? Well, while the service has other things which it touches on two major themes play back and forth throughout the service. The first of these keys on the event from Luke 7 with the Pharisee and the harlot, the second is Judas starting to unfold his particular role in the Passion narrative (and in a later parallel devotion in which Mary sister of Lazarus anointing Jesus feet with expensive perfume).

One of the striking things is the repetition and insistence of two points. The harlot’s sins where egregious (and she was repentant and was forgiven) but mine are worse … and while she has begged forgiveness … why have I not done the same. Specifically in one of the refrains sung, “Though I have transgressed more than the harlot, O Good One, I have not offered You a flood of tears ….” Toward the end, we sang a poignant and beautiful hymn which I will relay here (at least the text). Cassia is apparently the name appointed to the harlot (by the whom or what tradition I do not know).

The Hymn of Cassia

The woman had fallen into many sins, O Lord,
yet when she perceived your divinity,
she joined the ranks of the myrrh-bearing women.
In tears she brought You myrrh before Your burial.
She cried: “Woe is Me!
For I live in the night of licentiousness,
shrouded in the dark and moonless love of sin.
But accept the fountain of my tears,
as you gathered the waters o the sea into clouds,
Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart,
as You bowed the heavens in your ineffable condescension.
Once Eve heard your footstep in paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitude of my sins,
or the depth of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul?
Do not despise Your servant in your immeasurable mercy.”

It should be noted in the Matins services and in scattered throughout Orthodox liturgical prayer, canon, and hymnody great praise and honor is granted to those women called the Myrrh-bearers who first came to the tomb and discovered it to be empty and met the angel therein. This harlot, this prostitute is granted the same honor and praise for far before his passion she too bore myrrh and tears as a precursor to those other women as well.

The Gospel reading was far shorter tonight, only John 12:17-50.

Of the Personal and the Political:
Being A Christian in the Public Square

In an number of previous essays the notions of Bertrand de Jouvenel regarding political theory have been utilized. One of these ideas in particular is that government is rightly formed for a particular society and culture when its authority is freely granted by the people, that is it utilizes the authority granted to it by the people and does not have to resort to coercion. This idea of government does not stem from rights or freedoms and the “standard” contract terminology stemming from Hobbes/Lockean political philosophies. Limitations on government stems from both the withholding of authority and that what actions and freedoms state may grant to a person, does not by that granting make that action ethical or moral. For example, the Roman state (and in fact many states) granted the power of life and death to the state over individual citizens. For over 200 years, Christians were put to death for their faith under this power granted. That however, did not make it ethical or moral for a particular Roman to do put a Christian to death. Or more plainly, it was within the boundaries of Roman rule to put a Christian to death but it was unethical for individual Roman to do so. Nero as Emperor could execute Christians as such but it was unethical for Nero the man to do so.

Christians for just slightly under two thousand years have opposed abortion. A statement regarding abortion made today of and by those against abortion that fixes the idea that the act of abortion is a equivalent to murder and the actor be it the mother or the doctor, is equivalent to a murderer is not unheard of in pro-life circles. Some pro-life activists “go this far” and those criticizing the pro-life Christian position remark that this should be a logical consequence of ascribing personhood to the fetus. It is not necessary to ascribe full or even partial “personhood” to a fetus in order to oppose abortion. But even granting that, a view of government as expressed above combined with Christian ethics does not necessitate that step of equivicating abortion with murder. Continue reading →

A Quote for the Modern World

From the book on Father Arseny, a Russian priest who suffered decades of inhumane treatment in the Stalinist gulags and “special camps” for being an active member of a subversive organization (the Christian church).

I remember the visit of Bishop N. in 1962. He was a serious theologian, a philosopher, and many said, a good confessor. He came to have Father Arseny hear his confession. Many spiritual children of Father Arseny were going to the church where Bishop N. served.

He stayed for two days, during which time he confessed to Father Arseny and also heard his confession. They talked about the fate and the future of the Church in the Soviet Union and about what was important for the believers. Looking at Father Arseny’s library he pronounced, “The faithful one needs only the Gospel, the Bible, and the works of the Holy Fathers. All the rest isn’t worthy of attention.”

Father Arseny remained silent for a few moments and answered, “You are right, Your Holiness, the most important things are in those books, but we must remember that man as he develops nowadays is very different from man in the fourth century. The horizon of knowledge has become wider and science can now explain what couldn’t be understood then. The priests today must know a great deal in order to be able to help believers make sense of the contradictions he sees. A priest has to understand the theory of relativity, passionate atheism, the newest discoveries in biology, medicine and most of all modern philosophy. He gets visited by students of medicine, chemistry, physics, as well as by blue collar workers, and each one of them has to be given an answer to his or her questions such that religion doesn’t sound anachronistic or just a half-answer.”

Lent and an Odd Connection

Last year for Lent, I had an (inspired?) somewhat strange idea for Lent. There is a age-old wedding tradition in the form of a little ditty aimed at guiding the bride when she prepares her garment for the feast. That tradition goes in the manner of a ditty, she is to wear,

Something old,
Something new,
Something borrowed, and
Something blue.

I read. If I had time and less concerns I’d read a lot more, but I really enjoy study and reading. As a result, my Lenten tradition, now all of two years old, is to read 4 from books during the Lenten journey. And … the strange part is, I select these books based for good reason on that marriage ditty. I don’t have my borrowed book as yet, but the other three are the following:

  1. The old book is a book I’ve read and am going to re-read. For this book, I’m going to re-read The Brothers Karamazov. I finished this about a year ago but just before completing it I read in this little book on theodicy The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart that a important theme in the Brothers K is the posing and the Christian answer to the theodicy problem.
  2. The new book is a book newly acquired. Two books have vied for this as both seem really good. But I’ve selected God, Man and the Church by Vladamir Solovyev. Mr Solovyev was a late 19th century religious philosopher who influenced both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, judging by his wiki page and the introduction which I’ve glanced through, this will be an interesting read.
  3. And the blue book, is likely going to recur as the blue book for quite some time to come, Saint Silouan, the Athonite by the Archimandrite Sophrony has a blue cover … and is full of the teaching and example of an exemplary saint. Mount Athos is the holy mountain in Greece, a treasured and holy place for the Eastern Orthodox churches. Twenty monasteries dot the hillside and many, if not most, have been there for more than a millenia.

Philosophy, the Church, and Late Antiquity

A few weeks ago, I took issue with a quote offered on a particularly bad notion of how Christianity and culture have interacted through the ages. The quote is below, but I’m going to concentrate here on that part regarding Greece:

“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”

But as I noted this, quote was was incorrect in just about every single idea it tries to convey. It may be a popular conception, that the Greek influence transformed Christianity through perhaps neo-Platonism popular in the first through 4th centuries in the Roman Empire, but this is a misconception and has little to do with the actual intellectual, historical, and practical actual evolution of the Christian faith through the ages.

During my plane ride back on Friday from the West Coast, I read through about the first third of The Vision of God by Vladimir Lossky. Mr Lossky in this book traces the development of the idea of how we as humans might see (perceive) God through the ages. Specifically he is also in the process of countering the idea developed by a certain Protestant theologian/historian that the Greek neo-Platonism was a lasting influence on the Christian understanding of theophany. I’m a little short on time tonight, but at some point during this week I plan to trace the development that Mr Lossky traces in this book. But, on the notion of “where it became a philosophy” I’ll offer a quick remark.

In the 2nd century Clement (150-211/216) and Origen where both very influential theologians in the period and they were both very much influenced by new-Platonism. In fact, well Plotinus, author of the Enneads, another Alexadrian is regarded as the founder of neo-Platonism for late antiquity it might be noted shared with Origen a high regard, each for the other. They were colleagues, in not unrelated spheres and their work influenced each other. However, the neo-Platonic influences guiding the nature of the understanding of the mystical experience and Theophany as a super-intellectual meditative activity was very short lived. It even might be argued that Origen himself was of two minds on this. In many of his writings theophany (or the perception of God) was seen as a meditative act, but in other writings on prayer and in some of his exigesis of Scripture he takes a different tack, seeing the act of exegesis and prayer in a non-intellectual experiential emotive manner.

Furthermore, by the 4th century with the Cappadocians (St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil the Great) and St. John Chrysostom it became clear that the idea of theophany as a super-intellectual activity carried out by philosophers and those combining apatheia and intellect to find God had disappeared. Another current that served to erode this idea was the culture of the Desert, as exemplified by St. Athanasius Life of St. Antony and John Cassian’s carrying of the desert culture and learning to Gaul.

The point is that if one was to take seriously the idea that Christianity “became a philosophy” that statement would only have held true for a few short centuries and at the same time that idea was only held by a few theologians and this idea was most definitely not a notion held by average or any substantial fraction of the Church membership, be they elite or “ordinary”.

A Belated Notice

Jim Anderson, the inestimable blogger at decorabilia, has a carnival of vigilantism on the hoof. He emailed me last week about it, and I meant to add it to my links post but forgot. Anyhow …

As you may know, as a debate coach, I often blog about National Forensic League LD resolutions. The most recent is a good one: “Vigilantism is justified when the government has failed to enforce the law.” If you’d be interested in blogging some thoughts about it, I’d be happy to link to your musings. I’m trying to arrange a bit of a mini-carnival of posts by smart, legally- or philosophically-minded blog-neighbors, so if you know of anyone else who might like to join in the fray, or at least would like to link to the fun, feel free to forward this email.

The full announcement can be found at the link above.

A topic for myself for tomorrow I think. 😀