Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Venus, Mars, Regulus, and Jupiter Are Alright Tonight

Starship 21ZNA9
A good friend of mine
Studies the stars
Venus and Mars
Are alright tonight

"Venus and Mars" lyrics by Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney; published by MPL Communications, Inc.

This morning, as I went for my before-sunrise-run, I was greeted by three planets and a bright star, in the eastern sky. The four points of light were Venus, highest and brightest of the four, Regulus, a bright star only 79 light years away, Mars, the red planet, and Jupiter, just above the horizon. They made an inverted vee shape as if they were flying in formation. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Conjunctions of this nature always get me dreaming about space-travel. In my mind’s eye it looked possible to just hop in a plane and fly straight to whichever spot I chose.

Venus would provide a warm but cloudy holiday with lots of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere. Regulus would be a long journey, by any mode of transportation, and what we would find there is completely unknown. Mars is becoming the most well-known planet other than earth with the many probes, rovers, and orbiters sending back reams of scientific data. Just this past week it was learned that Mars does indeed have liquid water on its surface at certain times of its solar year. We would have a cold holiday on Mars and would have to bring along our own oxygen for breathing. Jupiter would perhaps be the most exotic vacation destination. Jupiter is a gas giant made up of clouds of frozen hydrogen and helium gas high above a core of liquid metallic hydrogen. The moons around Jupiter would be even more interesting to visit. Io, the largest of the moons, is a hotbed of volcanoes and bubbling pits of molten rock. Europa is covered with a frozen water crust. Perhaps one could have the most fantastic skating party of all time on the surface of Europa.

All of this went through my mind as I ran six kilometers on this boring old terrestrial ball. I turned and ran toward a very bright moon making its way toward setting in the west and I scared a few jack-rabbits with the padding of my athletic shoes. It was a great morning on Earth; but I was dreaming of spending time on other planets. How long will it be before we have colonies on Mars, or the moon, or Venus, or Europa? It is important that we continue to cultivate a desire for exploration that will lead us to other planets, moons, and stars. It is this inquisitive, pioneering, explorative spirit that makes us truly human.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

I have never met Mark A. Noll; but, if we ever do have a conversation together, I expect I would find myself very much agreeing with him. He is the sort of intellectual writer who is unafraid to turn over all of the stones and search for every seed of truth. He desires to take each gem of enlightenment captive to Christ. His most widely read book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, contains many great insights on the way in which mainstream Evangelicalism strayed so far from truth. He says,

. . . in their defense of the supernatural, fundamentalists and their evangelical heirs resemble some cancer patients. In facing a drastic disease, they are willing to undertake a drastic remedy. The treatment of fundamentalism may be said to have succeeded; the patient survived. But at least for the life of the mind, what survived was a patient horribly disfigured by the cure itself.[1]

The disfiguring to which Noll refers is the loss of a critical mind that exhibits a measure of skepticism regarding the miraculous and a healthy measure of skepticism appropriate to the scientific method. He is desirous that all Christians might live within the tension of belief and uncertainty. He further explains. “I was brought up in a Christian environment where, because God had to be given pre-eminence, nothing else was allowed to be important. I have broken through to the position that because God exists, everything has significance.”[2]

Still more clearly he says,

Who formed the world of nature (which provides the raw material for physical sciences)? Who formed the universe of human interactions (which is the raw material of politics, economics, sociology, and history)? Who is the source of all harmony, form, and narrative pattern (which is the raw material for art)? Who is the source of the human mind (which is the raw material for philosophy and psychology)? And who, moment by moment, maintains the connection between our minds and the world beyond our minds? God did, and God does.[3]

These words are extremely helpful as we each consider the relationship between faith and science, belief and agnosticism, and spirituality and materialism. May those who have comprehending minds meditate upon these thoughts.

Works Cited

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995.

[1] (Noll 1995)
[2] (Noll 1995)
[3] (Noll 1995)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Loving Our Enemies

In his brilliant novel, Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry creates a particular scene to illustrate a point. Jayber Crow, who is narrating his own story, is the town barber and, as is the lot of a small-town barber, hears many conversations in his barber shop. Some of these conversations are entertaining, amusing, and educational. Others are just plain ignorant. He recounts the following interaction with Troy Chatham.

The war protesters had started making a stir, and the talk in my shop ran pretty much against them. Troy hated them. As his way was, he loved hearing himself say bad things about them.
One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said – it was about the third thing said – “They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”
There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. . . .
It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”
I said, “Jesus Christ.”
And Troy said, “Oh.”
It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.[1]

How easy it is to love our enemies in the abstract. It is difficult to love actual people.

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000.

[1] (Berry 2000, 287)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Problem With Quotes

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that I rely heavily upon the writings and sayings of others. I frequently use the words that another has said or written as a jumping off point for exploring my own thoughts. Most of the time, I am confident that this is a fruitful method. Yet, I am also aware of the pitfalls of such an approach and have often witnessed problems with this technique in the writings of others; and so I know that it must also exist in mine. The basic difficulty lies in the fact that by taking one small snippet of a writer's thoughts, we run the risk of missing their meaning and perhaps interpreting their words in the opposite sense in which they were intended. For example, if one searches for quotes written by Wendell Berry in his book, Jayber Crow, you will find, online, a preponderance of quotes which support pessimism toward God or toward his existence. Here is an example of an often used quote that, at first glance, suggests that Berry is a proponent of atheism:

"Well, for instance," I said, "if Jesus said for us to love our enemies - and He did say that, didn't He? - how can it ever be right to kill our enemies?  And if He said not to pray in public, how come we're all the time praying in public?  And if Jesus' own prayer in the garden wasn't granted, what is there for us to pray, except 'thy will be done,' which there's no use praying because it will be done anyhow?" . . . He said, "Have you any more?"
"Well, for instance," I said, for it had just occurred to me, "suppose you prayed for something and you got it, how do you know how you got it?  How do you know you didn't get it because you were going to get it whether you prayed for it or not?  So how do you know it does any good to pray?  You would need proof, wouldn't you?"
He nodded.
"But there's no way to get any proof."
He shook his head.  We looked at each other.
He said, "Do you have any answers?"
"No," I said. . . . You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.  You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time."
"And how long is that going to take?"
"I don't know.  As long as you live, perhaps."
"That could be a long time."
"I will tell you a further mystery," he said.  "It may take longer."[1]
The questions Wendell Berry's character, Jayber Crow, asks are typical of one who has had faith and then lost it. They suggest someone who is trying hard to believe in Jesus, but just can't do it. For those who like to draw quotes from Wendell Berry to suggest agnosticism, this is sufficient to prove their point that, it is not rational to believe in a God who answers prayer and interacts with His creation.

Jayber Crow says these words at a point that is one sixth of the way through the book. One has to go a full two-thirds of the way through the book to see the answer Jayber Crow gives himself. The answer, which shows a renewed faith in Jesus, goes like this:

"I finally knew... why Christ's prayer in the garden could not be granted. He had been seeded and birthed into human flesh. He was one of us. Once He had become mortal, He could not become immortal except by dying. That He prayed the prayer at all showed how human He was. That He knew it could not be granted showed his divinity; that He prayed it anyhow showed His mortality, His mortal love of life that His death made immortal. . . .  
If God loves the world, might that not be proved in my own love for it? I prayed to know in my heart His love for the world, and this was my most prideful, foolish, and dangerous prayer. It was my step into the abyss. As soon as I prayed it, I knew that I would die. I knew the old wrong and the death that lay in the world. Just as a good man would not coerce the love of his wife, God does not coerce the love of His human creatures, not for Himself or for the world or for another. To allow that love to exist fully and freely, He must allow it not to exist at all. His love is suffering. It is our freedom and His sorrow. To love the world as much even as I could love it would be suffering also, for I would fail. And yet all the good I know is in this, that a man might so love this world that it would break his heart."[2] 
These are the words of a man who has found a renewal of his faith. These are the words of someone who will trust Jesus. The point is, one must consider the whole body of work before concluding the position of the author on this particular issue. One small, or large, quote does not fully represent the beliefs of Jayber Crow or, by extension, the beliefs of Wendell Berry. The bottom line, for both writers and readers, is that we must not be lazy about investigating the thoughts of an author. Truly substantiating a point may require a good deal more reading than most of us choose to invest. Becoming true scholars, knowledgeable readers, and connoisseurs of words will require a good deal more outlay of time; but, as good scholars will know, the investment is worth the reward.

Works Cited:

Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2000.

[1] (Berry 2000, 53, 54)
[2] (Berry 2000, 253, 254)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

We're Just Here To . . .

Previously I have recommended the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar (here and here) and I will continue to sing its praises even while encouraging us to see it for all it is and look discerningly at its message. As the main character, Cooper, says his good-byes to his family and prepares to leave the galaxy, he makes a statement that suggests depth but perhaps simply reveals the not so deep philosophy of the Nolan brothers who wrote the screenplay for this film.

"We're just here to be memories for our kids." Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Interstellar.[1]

On the one hand, this is not a bad concept. If we are here to be memories for our kids, we will want to make certain that the memories we leave behind are good memories and we will likely live good lives. But as a true philosophy of life, it falls far short. Our lives have an existence apart from the lives of our children. I will not get on a soap-box and preach a message that defines my own perspective on the purpose of life. Anyone who reads a few pages of this blog will soon discern what my view on this would be. Instead, I encourage you to think further about why we are here. It must be more than just to be memories for our kids. As we consider the joys and horrors of this life, we must at least admit that our purpose is to contribute to the joys and diminish the horrors. What more would you add to this? How would you answer the question of why we are here?

[1] Interstellar. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Performed by Matthew McConaughey. 2014.