Hand in Hand – Hurrah Karamazov!

Tears are one measure of a good book. The Brothers Karamazov affords many, most poignantly at the end. I look forward to knowing Fyodor Dostoevsky in the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells.

It’s such a vast book, with the brothers arrayed about the father in four: passion, reason, good, evil; nobility, modernity, piety, servitude. But they are not ideas, they are characters. And even more to the point, they are men. And they are men in which we see ourselves. God help me to be more like Alexi the man of God. Deliver me from the passions, deliver me from calculation, and most of all, deliver me from evil. God is not found in the passions, nor is He found in the systems of men’s logic or ideas. If one believes, one may see miracles. If one refuses, no proof can force belief. And if one ruminates, devoid of God, evil readily gains an audience.

The crushing courtroom scenes stand as a grand rebuke of reason, psychology, logic, and rhetoric – all are helpless in the face of a lie. Truth is spoken, but is not heard, because it does not seem to fit the facts, the arguments, the ideas in the minds of the hearers. And truth is spoken by only a few – the pious Alyosha, the fallen and redeemed Grushenka, and the tormented Ivan (who has been forced to it by the confession of the murderer, and speaks truth as from madness).

And what can be made of it? What can be made of the absurdity? Of the evil and the lies? Of the golden nobility mixed with base clay?

That man is fallen, but may be redeemed. Man is surrounded by evil, but may still love God and seek good. There is no resolution for the problem of evil, but there is a bigger point – the love of God. It is not comprehensible – nothing can wrap around it. But it comprehends everything – the cross is the power and weakness and the wisdom and the foolishness of God. Before the cross, the problem of evil is quite beside the point. It is still evil, and must be resisted by us in ourselves and around us. But there is no “problem” to speak of. Simply the unutterable, ineffable, eternal wisdom of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Will we weep with those who weep over the grave of Ilyushecka? Will we rejoice with those who rejoice, even in the unknown prospect of the life that lies ahead?

And will we love?

Then perhaps we will have made a close read of Dostoevsky.

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A lesson from Antarctica

The ratio of permanent residents to churches on Antarctica is 500:1 in the summer and about 120:1 during the winter. The US ratio is about 900:1.

Antarctica has proportionally more churches than America. And half are Roman Catholic, three are Orthodox, one is Protestant (this is like a 4th grade math problem, how many are there? but to be fair, the interdenominational Protestant one is the oldest).

As of 2015, Moscow had about 20000 persons per church. The “Build 200 Churches” program (that had some wags worried about overbuilding…) would leave the ratio at 15000 persons per church, still a long way from the US or Antarctica.

As an interesting tangent, upper estimates for Christianity in China report perhaps 1:10 to 1:20 persons as Christian. If a house church averages 20-40 people (a total guess), that would put the population:church ratio at about 200-800 : 1 – possibly better than the US.

Anyhow, if I had grabbed a population-per-church number out of the air, it would probably be close to 1000:1, which fits the US. I would not have guessed that Antarctica was way out front. (No data on attendance, though.)

But the annual-average winner (in my very limited survey of the internets):

Vatican City. 120:1. (All Catholic, of course…)

Go figure.

 

Dostoevsky

I felt pretty odd after reading Notes from the Underground in a sitting. But I think it’s supposed to be tackled whole, like it is written, in no more than two breaths, and those breathings are the panting of a madman.

But it made sense.

Dostoevsky dearly wanted man to be saved – or at least to be saveable, and I think that is why he so deeply explores the bitter depths of tormented characters. Notes seems to sit unfinished, like it is the parlor game in The Idiot where each tells the worst thing he or she has done. But the book certainly doesn’t end there. And Crime and Punishment does not even end at the prison – we are told so by its reliable narrator.

The narrator of Notes is not reliable, in the extreme. But his thesis – that man cannot be perfectable, because of his basic drive to muck it all up – is actually a demand that the door be left open to salvation and Christ. While he himself may perish (we are not told), his demand is that mankind be left unperfected, natural, raw, capable of good and evil. If the perfect (social/predictive/descriptive/governmental) system is ever found, man will be left knowing that he is incapable of good or evil, simply because it had to be that way according to the system. Dostoevsky demands, via his really awful narrator, that the system be left open. The door must be ajar. The window shall remain cracked, that the Holy Spirit may blow through when He wills.

And as you probably remember from my Iain McGilchrist kick, I think that’s spot on. However, postmodernism may have made one positive contribution that Dostoevsky hinted at (or maybe he got there first, not sure): any attempt to fully close the system, shut the door, slam the window, will make the house of cards fall flat.

I’m hoping Andrew will interact some with this as he ploughs the seas of Kant – does Kant think he exhaustively critiqued pure (or applied) reason? I’m curious, because to claim an exhaustive critique is also to claim a perfectly closed system.

Anyhow, there may be more on this theme from me, too, as I have a bit more of Idiot, and a re-read of Brothers K- ahead (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations – my travel books).

Kindly,

Mark

Wisdom

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S. Eliot (from Choruses from the Rock)

 

Later this month, I will be bringing home Stefan from Bulgaria. He is eight. He has some receptive language (in Bulgarian) and no known expressive language. He has been institutionalized from birth. When I first met him, he was five, and he greeted Ana and me with gentle pats and hoots. When I met him again on the official visit trip, this past January, he was able to demonstrate hand-over-hand instruction, as when he wanted me to open my water bottle. He will join our little family and begin to learn what his home is.

Our salvation is spoken of in terms of adoption at times. And many (perhaps most) people have an unrealistically rosy picture of adoption, and I suggest, of salvation, too.

Adoption is violence. It is the disruption of some kind of status quo. Perhaps the status quo was horrific. Perhaps it was merely oppressive or simply banal. But our expectations of the possible are conditioned by our experience, and we humans are remarkably adaptive to awful situations.

But (done by loving people and for the right reasons) adoption can be good violence. Christ did great violence to the Gates of Hell. We enter the kingdom following the voice of the Good Shepherd, but this does not mean the road is easy. It is narrow, and it is hard. The kingdom of heaven is taken by violence.

And I wonder if we (especially in comfy America) are really interested in a violent salvation.

We do not like to have our world shaken. Yet this is one of the things Christ promises (literally, in the Olivet discourse). And we realize, upon following the Shepherd into the sheepfold, that we are in a strange place surrounded by strangers. Many of them are strangely kind. But we do not yet know them. It takes time to get accustomed to the light, after being in darkness. It takes a long time to become part of the family. It takes time to learn a new language, a new culture, new foods, new music (or perhaps, music for the first time). We do not love well. Yet, if our hearts are following our Father, we want to love well, and try not to get discouraged when we fail. And we fail.

And what do we learn?

We can gather information about our new home. Names, dates, facts, data.

We can, eventually, synthesize this into knowledge of the new place. How to do things there. What things can be done there.

But if, by the grace of God, love takes deep root, we may become wise in the ways of our new home. This is never quick. It is never easy. But it is the most important. And it does not necessarily depend on the other two.

Ana loves us, her family. She may have no (or extremely limited) information about us, her home, her school (she got a 4.0, but made minimal progress on her IEP goals… oh the US public schools…). She has very limited knowledge (lip smacking brings food, fussing might get extra snuggles). But I believe – and I have been told by those holier than myself – that she has wisdom.

She has the wisdom of waiting.

She has the wisdom of trusting.

She has the wisdom to love the sounds, smells, and motions of God’s holy temple.

She has the wisdom of taking the Eucharist, even though she will spit other food out of her mouth.

Will Stefan attain to wisdom? He is more able than Ana, he will likely be quite good at assembling information and synthesizing knowledge in his own ways. In time, he may be adept at these things in the more conventional Western ways. But I pray most of all that he will have the wisdom to love.

And I must pray that for myself, as I gird my loins to undertake the violence of an adoption pickup trip, with its interminable waits at clinics, embassy, and airports; with nights I expect to be long and uncertain; with meals that are utterly alien to this young Bulgarian who must eat, but has never tasted his country’s delectable food; with a hole in my heart for my family at home, to whom I am bringing a stranger who only I have met.

It will not be by might or by power, but by the Holy Spirit. And I ask for the one thing God has promised to give: wisdom.

Lord, have mercy.

Mark

 

Ex Nihil

Dear readers,

This is a draft of a post I intend to publish on LinkedIn after further thought and comments from dear readers like you. So please share your thoughts!

In Christ,

Mark

 

“choice, informed by fact, not by revelation”

These are the words of my colleague Lawrence Krauss, in the epilogue to his book A Universe from Nothing (2012), reflecting his views on how we approach the question of origins. He is an atheistic scientist-philosopher in my own department, engaged in the search for confirmation of his hypotheses (as most academia is, to be fair). The hypothesis relevant to this statement, of course, is that no revelation is possible. And if it is impossible, it is not necessary.

Of course, the origins debate has raged for millennia, and there is no reason to believe it will be settled until our time is up. But there is a strong insinuation – at times overtly declared, as by Richard Dawkins in the afterword to the aforementioned book – that science is deadly to supernaturalism, that a Creator begs the question of his own creation, that our world as it is does not require God to exist.

And yet Krauss has rather a point when he summarizes that “something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being”, an observation that is simple and profound. The question, then, is how this transition from something-to-nothing happened. He submits that a stochastic quantum multiverse of spontaneous particle-antiparticle generation in vacuum solves the problem of how things happened and which laws happen to apply to us, but he makes a frank admission that “we generally assume that certain properties, like quantum mechanics, permeate all possibilities.”

This is the rub. If one is asking a question about the boundaries of the known, and engages in the task using known tools, one will inevitably find that the boundaries are at the limits of the tools. Maybe that’s confusingly put, but I think of Dionysius Burger’s Sphereland, and the exhaustive investigations of a finite surface undertaken by the squares. They can determine (much to the establishment’s horror) that space is curved – they live on a sphere. But they cannot determine anything about what might lie above or below the surface of the sphere. It is beyond their ken. When the three-dimensional Oversphere reveals himself, it is indeed a revelation. Something outside the bounds of the knowable is reaching into those bounds.

So there is a fundamental problem with the quote from Krauss that opens this article. How does one know that fact is fact? He addresses this internally in his admission of the assumption of the generality of quantum mechanics. But why are the quantum fields facts? They are theories, and they may be very impressive and useful and observable. That’s wonderful! But to call them multiversal fact and treat them as the pre-existing pillars of the universe(s) is questionable.

To be fair, there is also the question of the veracity of revelation. Historic Christianity (among many other religions) declares the existence of the spirit world, of angels, the devil and other fallen angels. Revelation may come from unreliable sources. This is not meant to muddy the waters, but to apply the same challenge to revelation as to fact – how reliable is it?

One can take this skepticism a step further – are we even able to reliably interpret or adjudicate truth claims? This is a major sticking point in psychotherapy – whose definition of health is supreme? We are once again stuck – I think so because I think so. Is there a guide to labeling something “ordered” or “disordered”? How can we even define the term “nothing”? We have no experience of it, as the quantum fluctuations demonstrate (ie – we cannot ever observe “nothing”, because there are always stochastic fluctuations of particle-antiparticle pairs in the quantum field).

To me, of course, this strongly supports the Christian assertion that truth is personal and is found in Jesus Christ. The alternative is a faith-based affirmation of chaos (which flies in the face of observed order, anyhow). And, we can have confidence in the cosmos and in our investigations of it because of the continuous upholding and ruling of it by the divine energy of God. And, we accept the limits of our finitude, and are grateful for revelations made by this personal God in Jesus Christ – revelations of things not knowable to us, such as the beginnings and ends of all things.

Krauss is unlikely to be convinced of anything by such claims (and it’s quite unlikely that he’ll even come across my take on this), but conversely, I am unlikely to be persuaded by his claims. Because, as I mentioned, this debate goes back millennia. Is matter pre-existent? Is a Creator pre-existent? Can either be known with certainty? Can either be investigated with the tools of science?

That last question is perhaps the one to explore further, as it is the assertion of Krauss. History is subject to search. Origins are a trickier question, as this is the transition between unknowable and knowable. Perhaps revelation could give us facts about these, but that’s another discussion.

Cosmologists tend to be math folks. You work with such absurdly large quantities, and you have to find ways of lumping parameters together to ask questions you are interested in. Krauss speculates on the origin of “something”, but swirling around this discussion like the arms on the Milky Way is the question of what that something is. Specifically, the one instance of that something that we know of – our universe, our world, ourselves. Where did we come from?

This is the question pursued by two increasingly convergent fields – evolutionary biologists and astrophysicists/astrobiologists. The latter two disciplines are conjoined, as they are concerned with what kind of worlds there may be, and what kind are needed for life. The evolutionary biologists are concerned with how life can come to be on such worlds.

Let’s introduce the Drake equation, as we’ll refer to it several times.

N_civ = N_galaxy * f_star * f_planet * f_life

where:

N_civ = the number of expected civilizations per galaxy

N_galaxy = the average number of stars per galaxy

f_star = the probability that a star has the needed properties to sustain life

f_planet = the conditional probability that, given a suitable star, one has a suitable planet

f_life = the conditional probability that, given a suitable planet, one develops life

Now, let’s look through a very limited selection of writings that (I suggest) captures the trajectory of serious thought on the origin of life and its possible origin elsewhere in our big universe.

1781 – Immanuel Kant would wager many conveniences in life that there are inhabitants of other worlds. Critique of Pure Reason, Ch.2, S.3, para.112

1855 – William Whewell reasons by analogy that, as extensive as space is, there must be a plurality of worlds, on some of which there must be (by analogy) creatures of whom God is mindful, just as the Psalmist writes in the eighth Psalm. Of the plurality of worlds: an essay.

Late 1800s – Camille Flammaron and Percival Lowell popularize the belief that the Martian “canali” were evidence of civilization on the Red Planet, culminating in Lowell’s 1908 work Mars as the Abode of Life.

1933 – Cal Berkely Prof. C. B. Lipman reports bacteria in meteorites. The bacteria is identical to terrestrial bacteria. NY Times article, 31 January.

1963 – Large group of scientists urge that the chief aim of NASA should be the search for extraterrestrial life, with many suggesting “reasonable prospects of finding some simple living organisms” on Mars. NY Times article, 10 January.

1975 – Gregory Cain, following Carl Sagan’s values in the Drake equation, suggests on the order of ten million advanced civilizations in our own galaxy. The Physics Teacher, 13, p404 (1975);

1998 – Lee Werth urges that we are hopelessly anthropic, and the search is absurd, because we could never recognize extraterrestrial intelligence if we found it. Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1998

2012 – J Woods Halley publishes a Springer Reference work entitled, blandly yet simply, How likely is extraterrestrial life? This book sequentially explores the Drake equation, and the term for the probability of life developing stochastically comes back (assuming DNA is the destination) as 10^( -300943). Simplifying the assumed end-state proto-life structure (to a length shorter than a non-self-reproductive viral phage), the probability of life of 10^(-555) is reached. It should be noted that in the remainder of this chapter, the equation is run backwards with an assumed probability of civilization development >1, thus forcing the chain length “required” for life to evolve to be rather short (130 elements, compared to 5×10^6 base pairs in E. Coli, and 3.2×10^9 for the human genome).

I suggest, on observing these works, that cosmology recapitulates philosophy. The faith in church and revelation of the Christian era was disputed by the Reformers, with rationalism leading to the confidence of the Enlightenment, which gave way to the optimistic science of modernity, which is now giving way to the postmodern despair. The only possible (rationalistic) answer to the postmodern despair is to hide in statistics. These, however, fail when it comes to the origin of life. The estimated life of the universe is 10^10 years or so. It is extraordinarily improbable that the human genome could assemble itself even once. (The odds are more like 1 in 10^300930, a number so big that I struggle to grasp its magnitude – like one byte in a tera-of-tera-of-tera-of-tera-of-terabytes).

And so I trace an expectation that life is out there, nearby, and sentient, turning into a hope that simple proto-life may be detected not too far away, and fading into a desperate effort to probablistically convince ourselves that we aren’t alone. Then the stats come in from the evolutionary biologists. And the Drake equation says that we’re alone. And in fact, that we shouldn’t really exist at all. The bookies would not take bets on us existing, anyhow. And Halley et al. commit the gambler’s fallacy by betting on a second win.

So, out of nothing, something marvelous comes – something that asks questions about origins, self, truth, goodness, beauty, fate, and God. And if we will humble ourselves as creatures, under the Creator, in need of the Redeemer, then this exploration of creation will lead us to joy in that Creator and that Redeemer, Jesus. (NB – Orthodox iconography – in contrast to the Sistine Chapel – consistently depicts Jesus creating the world, per the first verses of the gospel of St. John.)

While we kick against the goads, it will drive us to despair.

But in the meantime, while we apply for grants, we will be as cheerful and optimistic as we can…

Pagans and Paedeia – of Building a Culture

What role do the pagans hold in a Christian education?

This is a question that’s been bugging me for a while. I put Sisyphus on my final exam (he was supporting his boulder with a water jet), and there were a few people who got confused. Of course, my arrogant reaction is a “kids-these-days-don’t-know-anything” sort of grumble, but with respect to my own children, I wonder whether, when, where, and how to incorporate the pagans in such a way as to make a few things clear:

This is not Truth, though it has true lessons.

This is not Beauty, though much in it is beautiful.

This is not Goodness, though it has much to say of virtue.

The acculturation of a person is (in large part) the accumulation of stories. We have an immense and growing collection of such stories available, as virtually every mythos of every culture is translated and available to us in the West. What shall we do? What shall we read our children?

I’ll accept as axiomatic that the stories of the Bible are first and foremost. Stories of our family have their place – the worthy deeds of aunts, uncles, cousins, grand-folks, and so on are worth remembering. Stories of our nation have a place, too, though it is not enough to accept a nationalist (or cynical) view of any given nation. Personally, I think Paul Revere’s Ride belongs in a civics course, alongside discussion of social contracts and God’s blanket statements about authority from St. Paul. But I digress.

All of these stories shape our view of the world, consciously or not. And they all lay claim to belief simply by being known. To know a story is to allow it to make a claim – believe me. An aside: This is the power of the media state. A barrage of stories, without respite, all demanding the same thing – believe me.

But not all stories are to be believed. And it is certain that not all are to be believed in the same way. The news demands belief that such and such happened to so and so. The tortoise and the hare commands belief that diligence triumphs over pride. The tale of Sisyphus demands… what? Belief in an underworld of ironic punishments? Belief in justice? (Hardly.) Belief in the fiat of the gods and the unpredictability of fate? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is a story that, once known, requires continuous suspension of belief. This is perhaps the most pernicious way that media attacks a Christian. The more garbage that is allowed in, the more effort must be continually spent in the suspension of belief. This is effort that would be much more productively spent in pursuing holiness in various ways.

But back to the stories we are to tell. Every church tradition has them. In the Reformed churches, they tell of Huss, Tyndale, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the brave fathers of the Reformation, who for the sake of private interpretation, shattered Roman Christendom. In Orthodoxy, saints are commemorated daily, according to their repose (or notable day – St. John, Ivan’s patron, is commemorated today and in September). There are innumerable hagiographies, and each autocephalous national church has a paterikon, an “image of the fathers”, a collection of the saints of that church. This leads me to my next thoughts on culture.

Russia is Russian because of the Kievan Rus, who converted en masse, and it has been an Orthodox nation ever since (Communism being the great harrowing and trial of Orthodoxy in Russia). Georgia, likewise, has been a Christian nation for much more than a millennium. Bulgaria for about 1000 years (even under the Ottoman yoke). The culture of these nations is entwined with Orthodoxy, because (many of) the stories that are told are those of the saints of that land. (Aside, oppression is a danger to this, as in Ottoman Bulgaria, because it can mistakenly canonize rebels.) Serbia, Armenia (though not Chalcedonian), Ethiopia, Ukraine, and many other people groups share similar church-as-culture trajectories. So how can we late-modern-Americans work in ways that build our culture? And how can it be entwined with the church?

There must be love of God, love of neighbor, and love of our land. There is no rootless culture. All attempts at disembodied cultures fail cruelly. We live in a place, and culture is tied to place. In a few weeks, on the second Sunday after Pentecost, the Orthodox Church in America will celebrate the saints of North America. It is a small beginning, but it is a thanksgiving for holiness demonstrated in a place. One of the stichera from the Great Vespers reads:

“Rejoice, O mountains of Pennsylvania,

Leap for joy, O waters of the Great Lakes,

Rise up, O fertile plains of Canada,

for the elect of Christ who dwelt in you are glorified,

men and women who left their homes for a new land.

With faith, hope and patience as their armor,

they courageously fought the good fight.”

I never thought to hear a hymn about Pennsylvania. But lo! A recognition that holy people have labored here for the glory of God is the beginning of Christian culture. Humility, a recognition that we stand on the shoulders of giants (to unflinchingly use a cliche), a knowledge that we accept with thanks those things given to us – be they plentiful or meager – and we give them to God and to our neighbor in our land. This will make a culture. The saints, not the pagans, are the lights to follow.

Perhaps there is some wisdom in knowing the pagans for academic purposes, but I am not at all sure that it is wise to uncritically approach pre-Christian literature, as though Christ has not dispelled the myths of the demons. It is instructive that the Ephesians burned their magic books, rather than make a library for scholars to consult in the event that valid herbalism might be in there, too.

So know the saints. They live to God. They are not far from us. They worship better than we do, and we may well desire their prayers for us and for our land, even as they pray to God for the consummation of all things from beneath the altar.
“And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.” Nehemiah 2:18