Archive for September, 2010


The Sacred and the Human by Roger Scruton

September 30, 2010

Religion is not primarily about God, but about the sacred, and that the experience of the sacred can be suppressed, ignored and even desecrated but never destroyed.

This essay first appeared in Prospect Magazine, August 2007 and has some of the thoughts included in Professor Scruton’s 2010 Gifford Lectures. An overview of the role of religion and a meditation on Girardian theory, the essay gives us much to reflect on, particularly for those who might wish to dismiss Religion as if it were some disproven theory.

A System Of Unfounded Beliefs?
It is understandable that decent, skeptical people, observing the widespread revival in our time of superstitious cults, the emerging conflict between secular freedoms and religious edicts, and the murderous insanity of radical Islam, should be receptive to the anti-religious polemics of Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens. The ‘sleep of reason’ has brought forth monsters, just as Goya foretold in his wonderful engraving. How are we to rectify this, except through a wake-up call to reason, of the kind that the evangelical atheists are now shouting from their pulpits?

Goya's The Sleep of Reason

Nor is it surprising that decent, skeptical people should regard last-ditch attempts to retain the belief in God’s temporal concern for us (such as the theory of ‘intelligent design’), as testifying merely to the miraculous ability to believe in the miraculous. Either we leave the field to science, or we take refuge in the inexplicable – which is no refuge from science. For the skeptical observer of the human scene, there is nothing that religion can add to scientific explanation other than the invocation of a transcendental causa sui which, by its very nature, eludes human comprehension.

Somewhat more surprising is the extent to which religion is caricatured by its current opponents, who seem to see in it nothing more than a system of unfounded beliefs about the cosmos – beliefs which, to the extent that they conflict with the scientific worldview, are heading straight for refutation. Thus Christopher Hitchens, in his relentlessly one-sided diatribe, writes as follows:

One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made of atoms – had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). (God Is Not Great, p. 64)

Now Hitchens is an intelligent and widely read man, who recognizes that the arguments that are most useful to him were already well-known two hundred years ago. His book takes us through territory already charted by Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Kant, and nobody who is familiar with the Enlightenment can really believe that anything has been added to its stance against religion by our contemporary imitators, whatever new examples they can add to the list of religiously-motivated crimes.

The Origin of Religion
However, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, having argued the claims of faith to be without rational foundation, did not then dismiss religion, as one might dismiss a refuted theory. Many of them went on to draw the conclusion that religion must therefore have some other origin than the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and some other psychic function than providing a world-view that consoles those who subscribe to it. The ease with which the common doctrines of religion could be refuted alerted thinkers like Jacobi, Schiller and Schelling to the thought that religion is not, in its essence, a matter of doctrine, but of something else. And they set out to discover what that something else might be.

Thus was born the anthropology of religion. For thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment it was not faith but faiths, in the plural, that composed the primary subject-matter of theology. Hence the appearance of books with titles like Origine de tous les cultes; ou, Religion universelle (C.F. Dupuis, 1795), and hence the busy decipherment of oriental religions by the Bengal Asiatic Society, whose proceedings began to appear in Calcutta in 1788. For post-Enlightenment thinkers the monotheistic belief-systems were not related to the ancient myths and rituals as science to superstition, or logic to magic. They were crystallizations of the emotional need which found equal expression in the myths and rituals of antiquity and in the Vedas and Upanishads of the Hindus.

Myth And The Human Psyche
This thought led Georg Creuzer, whose Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker appeared between 1810 and 1812, to represent myth as a distinctive operation of the human psyche. A myth does not describe what happened in some obscure period before human reckoning, but what happens always and repeatedly. It does not explain the causal origins of our world but rehearses its permanent spiritual significance. Myth is a way of understanding deep processes of the human psyche, which cannot be easily described except through imaginative stories.

If you look at ancient religion in that way then inevitably your vision of the Judaeo-Christian canon will change. The Genesis story of the creation is easily refuted as an account of historical events: how can there be days without a sun, man without a woman, life without death? Read it as a myth, however, which recounts the concealed and repeatable meaning of events that we live through every day, and this naïve-seeming text reveals itself as a profound study of the human condition.

The story of the fall is, Hegel wrote, ‘not just a contingent history but the eternal and necessary history of humanity’. (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 1827.) It conveys truths about freedom, about guilt, about man, woman and their relationship; about our relation to nature and mortality. A skeptical and scientific mind, such as that of Leon Kass in his The Beginning of Wisdom: The Story of Genesis, can use this text to explore moral and psychological truths that are nowhere else so vividly or succinctly evoked.

Not surprisingly, therefore, among the first effects of the Enlightenment were new ways of reading scripture, and new attempts to square the scriptures with the demands of the rational intellect. Thus was born the science, or at any rate the art, of hermeneutics, whose first conscious proponent, Friedrich Schleiermacher, saw religion as a distinctive activity of the rational soul, rooted in feeling rather than intellect.

For Schleiermacher’s contemporary Hegel, the Biblical stories had to be cleared of their merely imagistic nature, and construed as ventures of the spirit, on the path to self-knowledge. Religion, as he put it, is spirit that realizes itself in consciousness – it is the spirit coming to know itself, through the successive forms of human worship. The religions of mankind (which Hegel, spurred on by Creuzer, avidly collected and brilliantly analyzed) represent ‘determinations’ of the abstract idea of divinity. But we approach this idea through the path of alienation, and among religious concepts we should include not only those of God, creation, and design, but also those of guilt, unhappiness, atonement and reconciliation – features of the human condition which lead us to see the world from a position outside it, and to search it for the places and times in which freedom can enter the otherwise incomprehensible flow of events.

For Hegel, myths and rituals are forms of self-discovery, through which we understand the place of the subject in a world of objects, and the inner freedom which conditions all that we do. The emergence of monotheism from the polytheistic religions of antiquity is not so much an observation of the world as a form of self-knowledge, through which the spirit learns to recognize itself in the whole of things, and to overcome its finitude.

That idealist approach inspired Feuerbach to give a materialist rejoinder. Gods, angels, devils and the rest are, he argued, human creations, projections of the moral life, whose doings in the stratosphere reflect the moral tensions which animate the world below. The only reality here is the ‘species being’ of humanity, which creates these figments out of the raw material of human need. And the downside of religion is that it encourages our complacency, enabling us to place our virtues at an impassable distance from ourselves, by projecting them into that higher, and illusory, realm from which they can never thereafter be recuperated.

Nietzsche and Wagner
Between those early ventures into the anthropology of religion and the studies of Sir James Frazer, Emile Durkheim and the Freudians, two thinkers stand out as setting the agenda for a new intellectual enterprise – an enterprise which seems not to have been noticed by Hitchens, Dawkins or Dennett, but which is nevertheless of some importance to us today. The thinkers to whom I refer are Nietzsche and Wagner, and the intellectual enterprise is that of showing the place of the sacred in human life, and the kind of knowledge and understanding that comes to us, through the encounter with sacred things.

Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, and Wagner in Tristan, The Ring and Parsifal as well as in his writings on tragedy and religion, painted a picture that, while rooted in the post-Enlightenment tradition and owing much to Feuerbach, placed the concept of the sacred at the centre of the anthropology of religion. The lesson that both thinkers took from the Greeks was that you could subtract the gods and their stories from Greek religion, and still the most important thing would remain. This thing had its primary reality not in myths but in rituals, in moments that stand outside time, in which the deep loneliness and anxiety of the human individual is confronted and overcome.

By calling these moments ‘sacred’ we recognize both their complex social meaning and also the respite that they offer from alienation. Forget theology, forget doctrine and belief, forget all the ideas about an after-life – for none of these have the importance in Homer or in tragedy that attaches to the moment of ritual sacrifice, when the human world is suddenly irradiated from a point beyond it.

Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy was dismissed as an unscholarly fantasy, and cost him his career as a philologist. Wagner’s artistic proof of his own insights remained accessible only to those with ears. While most anthropologists recognized that religion belongs to another category of thought than science, and that it should not be dismissed (as Hitchens dismisses it) merely as a residue of animal fears and childish yearnings, the attempt to understand the concept of the sacred remained where Nietzsche and Wagner had left it.

Girardian Theory
It was not anthropologists but theologians and critics who took the matter forward – Rudolf Otto in Das Heilige, 1917, Georges Bataille in L’Érotisme, 1952, Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane, 1957, and, most explicitly and also shockingly, René Girard in La violence et le sacré, 1972. It is Girard’s theory, it seems to me, that most urgently needs to be debated, now that atheist triumphalism is sweeping all nuances away.

Girard begins from an observation that no impartial reader of the Hebrew Bible or the Koran can fail to make, which is that religion may promise peace, but is also deeply implicated in violence. The God presented in those writings is frequently angry, given to insane fits of destruction and seldom deserving of the epithets bestowed upon him in the Koran – al-raHmân al-raHîm, ‘the compassionate, the merciful’. He makes outrageous and bloodthirsty demands – such as the demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. He is obsessed with the genitals and adamant that they should be mutilated in his honor – a theme that has been interestingly explored by Jack Miles in his riveting book God: A Biography.

Thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens leap at once to the conclusion that religion is the cause of this violence and sexual obsession, and that all the crimes committed in the name of religion can be seen as the definitive disproof of it. Not so, argues Girard. Religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it. The violence itself comes from another source, and there is no society without it since it is engendered by the very attempt of human beings to live together. The same can be said, too, of the obsession with sexuality: religion is not the cause of this, but an attempt to resolve it.

Girard’s theory is best understood as a kind of inversion of an idea of Nietzsche’s. In his later writings, Nietzsche expounded a kind of creation myth, by way of accounting for the structure of modern society. On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) envisages a primeval human society, reduced to near universal slavery by the ‘beasts of prey’ – namely the strong, self-affirming, healthy egoists who impose their desires on others by the force of their nature. The master race maintains its position by punishing all deviation on the part of the slaves – just as we punish a disobedient horse.

The slave, too timid and demoralized to rebel, receives this punishment as a retribution. Because he cannot exact revenge the slave expends his resentment on himself, coming to think of his condition as in some way deserved, a just recompense for his inner transgressions. Thus is born the sense of guilt and the idea of sin. The ressentiment of the slave explains, for Nietzsche, the entire theological and moral vision of Christianity. Christianity owes its power to the resentment upon which it feeds: resentment which, because it cannot express itself in violence, remains turned against itself. Thus arises the ethic of compassion, the mortification of the flesh, and the life-denying routines of the ‘slave morality’. Christianity is a form of self-directed violence, which conceals a deep resentment against every form of human mastery.

That ‘genealogy’ of Christian morals was effectively exploded by Max Scheler, in his book Ressentiment: as Scheler argues, the Christian ethic of agape and forgiveness is not an expression of resentment but rather the only known way of overcoming it. Nevertheless there is surely an important truth concealed within Nietzsche’s wild generalizations. Resentment is a fundamental component in our social emotions; it is widely prevalent in modern societies; and there is surely no way in which we might explain either the durability of egalitarian politics or such local phenomena as Islamist violence, if we do not see resentment as a major part of the cause.

We may suppose religion to make an input into social violence. But it is surely evident to any observer of the 20th century that you can take away religion, and the violence will usually remain. And the 20th century is the century of resentment. How else do you explain the mass murders of the communists and the Nazis, the seething animosities of Lenin and Hitler, the genocides of Mao and Pol Pot? The ideas and emotions behind the totalitarian movements of the 20th century are targeted: they identify a class of enemy, whose privileges and property have been unjustly acquired and at the expense of their victims. And this class must be destroyed. Religion plays no real part in the ensuing destruction, and indeed is usually included among the targets.

Girard’s theory, like Nietzsche’s, is expressed as a genealogy, or rather a ‘creation myth’: a fanciful description of the origins of human society, from which to derive an account of its present structure. (It is significant that Girard came to the anthropology of religion from his work as a literary critic, a student of Shakespeare, Cervantes and Stendhal.) And like Nietzsche Girard sees the primeval condition of society as one of conflict. It is in the effort to resolve this conflict that the experience of the sacred is born. This experience comes to us in many forms – in religious ritual, in prayer, in tragedy – but its true origin is in an act of communal violence.

Primitive societies are invaded by ‘mimetic desire’, as rivals struggle to match each other’s social and material acquisitions, so heightening antagonism and precipitating the cycle of revenge. The solution is to identify a victim, one marked by fate as ‘outside’ the community and therefore not entitled to vengeance against it, who can be the target of the accumulated blood-lust, and who can bring the chain of retribution to an end. Scapegoating is society’s way of recreating ‘difference’ and so restoring itself. By uniting against the scapegoat people are released from their rivalries and reconciled. Through his death the scapegoat purges society of its accumulated violence. His resulting sanctity is the long-term echo of the awe, relief and visceral re-attachment to the community that was experienced at his death.

According to Girard, therefore, the need for sacrificial scapegoating is deeply implanted in the human psyche, arising from the very attempt to form a durable community in which the moral life can be successfully pursued. One purpose of the theatre is to provide fictional substitutes for the original crime, and so to obtain the benefit of moral renewal without the horrific cost. In Girard’s view, we should see a tragedy like Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus as a re-telling of what was originally a ritual sacrifice, in which the victim is chosen so as to focus and confine the need for violence. Through incest, kingship, or worldly hubris the victim marks himself out as the outsider, the one who is not with us, and whom we can therefore sacrifice without renewing the cycle of revenge. The victim is thus both sacrificed and sacred, the source of the city’s plagues and their cure.

In many of the Old Testament stories we see the ancient Israelites wrestling with this sacrificial urge. The stories of Cain and Abel, of Abraham and Isaac, of Sodom and Gomorrah, are residues of extended conflicts, by which ritual was diverted from the human victim, and attached first to animal sacrifices, and finally to sacred words. By this process a viable morality emerged from competition and conflict, and from the visceral rivalries of sexual predation. Religion is not the source of violence but the solution to it – the overcoming of mimetic desire and the transcending of the resentments and jealousies into which human communities are tempted by their competitive dynamic.

And it is in just this way, Girard argues, that we should see the achievement of the Christian religion. In his study of the scapegoat (Le Bouc émissaire, 1982) Girard identifies Christ as a new kind of victim – one who offers himself for sacrifice, and who, in doing so, shows that he understands what is going on. The words ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ are pivotal for Girard. They involve both a recognition of the necessity for sacrifice, if the guilt and resentment of community is to be appeased and transcended, and the added recognition that this function must be concealed. Only those who are ignorant of the source of their hatred can be healed by its expression, for only they can proceed with a clear conscience towards the tragic climax.

The climax, however, is not the death of the scapegoat, but the experience of sacred awe, as the victim, at the moment of death, forgives his tormentors. This is the moment of transcendence, in which even the most cruel of persecutors can learn both to humble himself and to renounce his vengeful passion. Through his willing acceptance of his sacrificial role Christ made the ‘love of neighbor’ – which had featured from the oldest books of the Hebrew bible as the standard to which humanity should aspire – into a reality in the hearts of those who rehearse or meditate upon his gesture. Christ’s submission purified religion of the need for sacrificial murder: his conscious self-sacrifice is therefore, Girard suggests, rightly thought of as a redemption, and we should not be surprised if, when we turn away from our Christian legacy as the Nazis and the Communists did, the hecatombs of victims reappear.

Girard’s account of the Passion is amplified by many learned asides, by a vigorous and ongoing engagement with Freud and Lévi-Strauss, and by a conviction that religion and tragedy are (as Nietzsche argued) adjacent in the human psyche, comparable receptacles for the experience of sacred awe. The experience of the sacred is not an irrational residue of primitive fears, nor is it a form of superstition that will one day be chased away by science. According to Girard, it is a solution to the accumulated aggression which lies in the heart of human communities. That is how he explains the peace and celebration that attends the ritual of communion – the sense of renewal which must always itself be renewed.

Girard’s Vision Of The Eucharist
Girard’s vision of the Eucharist is anticipated in Parsifal, and in particular in the sublimely tranquil Good Friday music of Act III. It is anticipated too by Hegel, who writes that ‘in the sacraments reconciliation is brought into feeling, into the here and now of present and sensible consciousness; and all the manifold actions are embraced under the aspect of sacrifice.’ (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion.) Girard, like Hegel, takes himself to be describing deep features of the human condition, which can be observed as well in the mystery cults of antiquity and the local shrines of Hinduism as in the everyday ‘miracle’ of the Eucharist.

Girard Theory Criticisms
There are many criticisms that might be leveled against Girard’s theory – not least, against the idea that human institutions can be explained through genealogies and creation myths. The alleged ‘mimetic’ nature of human competition is underdescribed and underjustified; there are other and more plausible explanations of the ancient ritual of animal sacrifice than that offered by Girard; and the success of the Christian ethic has many other causes besides the mystical reversal that allegedly occurred on the Cross. But those criticisms do not, it seems to me, account for the comparative neglect of Girard’s ideas. Girard’s thesis has been received with the same dismissive indifference as Nietzsche’s in The Birth of Tragedy, and though he has been honored with a siège at the Académie Française, the honor has come only now, as Girard approaches his ninetieth year.

I suspect that, like Nietzsche, Girard has reminded us of truths that we would rather forget – in particular, the truth, which is anathema to the evangelical atheists, that religion is not primarily about God, but about the sacred, and that the experience of the sacred can be suppressed, ignored and even desecrated (which is the routine tribute paid to it in modern societies) but never destroyed. Always the need for it will arise, for it is in the nature of rational beings like us to live at the edge of things, experiencing our alienation and longing for the sudden reversal that will once again join us to the centre. For Girard that sudden reversal is a kind of self-forgiveness, as the concealed aggressions of our social life are abruptly transcended – washed in the blood of the lamb.

Girard’s genealogy casts an anthropological light on the Christian ethic and on the meaning of the Eucharist; but it is not just an anthropological theory. Girard himself treats it as a piece of theology. For him the theory is a kind of proof of the Christian religion and of the divinity of Jesus. And in a striking article in the Stanford Italian Review (1986) he suggests that the path that has led him from the inner meaning of the Eucharist to the truth of Christianity was one followed by Wagner in Parsifal, and one along which even Nietzsche reluctantly strayed, under the influence of Wagner’s masterpiece.

Of course, you don’t have to follow Girard into those obscure and controversial regions in order to endorse his view of the sacred as a human universal. Nor do you have to accept the cosmology of monotheism in order to understand why it is that this experience should attach itself to the three great transitions – the three rites of passage – which mark the cyclical continuity of human societies. Birth, copulation and death are the moments when time stands still, when we look on the world from a point at its edge, when we experience our dependence and contingency, and when we are apt to be filled with an entirely reasonable awe. It is from such moments, replete with emotional knowledge, that religion begins, and the rational person is not the one who scoffs at all religions, but the one who tries to discover which of them, if any, can make sense of those things, and, while doing so, draw the poison of resentment.


Selections From Dismissing God by Donald D. Hoffman

September 29, 2010

Donald D. Hoffman is a Professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, University of California Irvine, California. If you are like me, you may be a little tired of the Steven Pinker neuroscientists and their broad claims at having discovered the Soul or God in the human brain. Dr. Hoffman makes a clear case here as to what neuroscience knows and doesn’t know.

DEBATES BETWEEN THEISTS AND ATHEISTS often hinge, naturally enough, on advances in cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Here I contend that such advances, though relevant to the debate, cannot license deductively valid arguments for or against theism. I contend further that the central role of probability in evolutionary theory grants no inductive strength to arguments for or against theism. The Kolmogorov axioms of probability and the mathematical definition of a stochastic process suitably model mutation and selection; using this fact to conclude for or against theism requires, in either case, a leap of faith.

Neuroscience and God
In 1961 the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, while making history as the first person to orbit the earth, also became the first person to discuss theology from space with the famous comment, “I don’t see any god up here.” Nothing was settled, of course, by this observation, and substantive debate between science and religion continues to this day. But Gagarin’s comment raises a wider question. As science advances it probes, with an increasingly powerful array of tools, all aspects of nature from the submicroscopic to the cosmological. As new vistas of nature open to the advances of science, it appears each time that the scientists exploring the new vistas can say, with Gagarin, “I don’t see any god up here.” The unexplored gaps in nature where God might be hiding are rapidly vanishing. Will God suffer the same extinction as species whose habitat vanishes?  

Or has neuroscience already dealt the extinction blow? Normal activity of the human cerebral cortex can be altered by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a magnetic field that can be applied directly and noninvasively outside of the human skull. Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Canada has found that appropriate application of TMS to the temporal lobes of the brain will cause many people to experience the presence of God. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) to image the brain activity of nuns and monks who meditate to experience oneness with God, found that when the meditation reached its goal, certain regions in the parietal lobe decreased their activity. Is the experience of God simply an artifact of brain activity?  

And didn’t evolutionary theory deal the extinction blow long ago? God is no longer needed to explain the origin of species. Chance operating with natural selection seems to do just fine. I will not try here to argue for or against the existence of God. I will simply observe that the three dismissals of God just scouted, despite their psychological appeal, do not survive a sober understanding of the scope and limits of science, the nature of human perception, and the modern theory of chance.

The Nature Of Human Perception
I begin with the nature of human perception, and in particular human visual perception, which will illuminate the scope and limits of science. Most of us think pretheoretically that human vision operates much like a camera. There is an objective physical world out there that exists independently of whether we perceive it or not, and our eyes, like a camera, faithfully record this world. In part this is true. Our eyes do focus an image, as does a camera, and the retinas of our eyes record this image, as does the film or CCD (charge-coupled device) chip of a camera.

But our eyes are just the first stage of visual processing. Behind the eyes the optic nerves transport filtered versions of the retinal images to the brain’s cortex. And here there is a big surprise: Roughly half of the brain’s cortex is engaged in vision. About 50 billion neurons, and tens of trillions of synapses, are engaged each time you simply open your eyes and look around. This is far more computational power than is necessary to simply record an image. What is going on?

Research in the cognitive and neural sciences has made clear that our visual systems are not simply passive recorders of objective reality, but instead are active constructors of the visual realities we perceive. Each of us has within us a reality engine, which takes the images at the eyes and constructs three-dimensional worlds of objects, colors, textures, motions, and depth. What we see with each glance is not the world as it is objectively and as it would be even if there were no observers. Instead what we see is entirely our own construction. Our process of construction proceeds so rapidly and confidently that we are misled by our own prowess into thinking that we are not constructing at all, but simply reporting what is there independent of us. In short, our belief that we see the world as it objectively is, unadorned, is an illusion made possible by the very brilliance and efficiency of our reality creating process.

Reality As We Construct It According To Our Rules
What we see at any moment is the best theory our visual system can come up with to explain the images at the eyes. The visual system is much like a scientist, in creating theoretical explanations for the evidence at hand. The big difference is that the theory building process of the scientist is usually conscious, while the theory-building process of our visual systems is for the most part conducted without our conscious awareness. The visual system does not just create its theories at random, but instead is guided by many rules of visual construction, rules that are the subject of much current investigation by vision researchers. Rules have been uncovered for our constructions of color, depth, motion, objects, shapes, and edges. A visual example of our constructive processes at work is the “subjective Necker cube” first devised in 1977 by psychologists Bradley and Petry:


Perhaps you see a cube floating in front of black disks when you view this figure. If you look for a while you might notice that the cube flips, and that a corner of the cube that was in front suddenly is behind, and vice versa. So you actually construct two different cubes floating in front of the black disks. You might feel that you see the edges of the cubes quite clearly, even where they pass between the black disks. But if you cover up the black disks with your hands, you’ll see that there is no edge between the disks. You construct the edge you see, just like you construct the two cubes.

But you can do even more. Imagine that the black disks are holes in a sheet of paper, and that you are looking through the holes, and behind the paper you see a cube. Notice that now you see the cube not floating in front of the black disks, but sitting behind them. And the edges of the cube, that look ghostly when the cube floats in front, now look solid when the cube is behind. If you keep looking at the cube behind the holes, you’ll again see that it can flip, so that you can actually see two different cubes behind. In total, then, you construct four different three-dimensional cubes from this flat drawing, and you construct illusory edges which you make to be either ghostly or solid. That is a lot of construction, and just a hint of what your visual system is doing all the time. Space here does not permit going into more examples, but I have placed some interactive visual demonstrations online, where you can explore for yourself how you create color, motion, and objects.

The demonstrations are at this URL: 

What is true for vision is true for all of our senses, including touch, smell, taste, and hearing. In each of these senses, what we perceive is not reality unadorned, but reality as we construct it according to our own internal set of rules. We are adept creators of all the sensory realities we experience. 

Insight Into The Nature Of Objective Reality
Philosophers studying perception distinguish two senses of perceiving: the phenomenal and relational. The phenomenal sense of perceiving refers to our visual experience, the way that things seem to us. If I am dreaming about an elephant, the elephant I am experiencing in the dream is being perceived in the phenomenal sense. The relational sense of perceiving refers to the objective reality that we interact with in an act of perception. For me to perceive something in the relational sense, that thing must exist independent of whether I perceive it or not.

Now clearly none of my sensory experiences exist independent of whether I perceive them or not. Therefore objects in the relational sense are not in my sensory experience, but must be inferred from my sensory experience. The situation, then, is that the world we experience as our perceptual reality is in fact an elaborate construction on our part. It is something we perceive in the phenomenal sense, not the relational sense. And what we construct is critically dependent on the rules we employ in the reality creation process. Realities that are not licensed by our rules are realities that we are not equipped to experience. What can we say then about an objective reality that does not depend on our sensory experiences for its existence? Do our sensory experiences give us secure grounds to make inferences about this reality, about the objects we might be perceiving in the relational sense?

One might be tempted to say this is so based on an evolutionary argument: Creatures whose perceptions in the phenomenal sense were too divergent from reality in the relational sense were at a competitive disadvantage, and natural selection has made sure that those of us who have survived have a good match between our phenomenal perceptions and the relational reality.

But this is not a valid argument within the structure of evolutionary theory. What natural selection secures, according to this theory, is survival to reproduction, not perceptual truth. Roaches, like humans, are the result of natural selection. But we have little confidence that roaches have deep insights into objective reality. They don’t need such insights in order to survive just fine. The same may be true of us. We have cognitive and perceptual apparatuses that allow us to survive long enough to reproduce, but we have no guarantees on evolutionary grounds that these apparatuses give us deep insight into the nature of objective reality.

Phenomenal Worlds And The Relational Realm
Indeed it is highly unlikely that objective reality resembles in any way the worlds of our phenomenal construction. It would be luck beyond belief to find that the human species, of the millions of species on earth, happens to be the one whose phenomenal worlds resemble the relational realm. It is a certain anthropocentrism that would lead us to assert otherwise, the same anthropocentrism that led us to assert that the earth is the center of the universe, about which all else revolves. What may be unique to humans as a species is a perceptual and cognitive apparatus which, for the first time in evolutionary history, can rise above the assumption, whether tacit or explicit, that our perceptions in some way resemble objective reality.

What view does this give of the scientific enterprise? Science walks on two legs: observation and logic. The success of science has been its care in arranging detailed observations, and its care in the logical interpretation of the results of these observations. But what the study of perception has uncovered is that, no matter how careful our observations are, we will always be limited to observing only what our internal rules of construction allow us to perceive. Even if we extend our senses with telescopes, microscopes, and various high-tech devices, we can never step outside our senses and see reality unadorned. We cannot get perceptual data that is independent of our own rules of perceptual construction.

The very rules that enable us to see also blind us to the infinity of other possibilities that do not conform to our rules. Evolution is not done yet. There is no reason to believe that we have arrived at the set of rules of construction that give deep insight into the nature of objective reality. There is every reason to believe that we are simply another species, like spiders and termites, that has developed an idiosyncratic perceptual system to fit the idiosyncrasies of the niches we happen to inhabit. This is, of course, no denigration of science. Science may be the best our species can do given the limits of its perceptual and cognitive endowments.

What this does make clear is that the ability of science to understand objective reality is limited by the perceptual and cognitive endowments of our species. Those endowments have not evolved, according to neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, to give us truth, just to give to us, as also to the roach, survival to reproduction. We can point to the many successes of science to suggest that our species might be special, that our perceptual apparatus might just give us true insights into the nature of reality independent of our perceptions. But we can also point to these same successes to tell the opposite story.

The Matter And Energy We Can Perceive Is A Mere 4% Of The Total
One stunning success of science is the discovery of dark energy and dark matter, which together constitute something like 96% of the energy and matter in the universe. The matter and energy we can perceive is a mere 4% of the total, the light frosting on the cake. We have no current way to discover any properties of this dark matter and energy. We can only postulate its existence because without it the behavior of the 4% we can see and measure would not make sense. So our best science tells us that there are serious limits to how deeply our perceptual and cognitive endowments allow us to penetrate the nature of objective reality. The same message appears repeated many times elsewhere in science, for instance in the uncertainty principle and the measurement problem of quantum theory.So the story outlined above, in which science is systematically uncovering all the secrets of nature, and leaving less and less room for God to hide, is not only immodest, but a complete misunderstanding of the scientific enterprise.

Unprovable Truths
Science is a species specific enterprise, which proceeds under the restrictions of the cognitive and perceptual endowments of one species among millions on earth. The most striking results of this enterprise appear to inform that species of some of its own limitations. These results crop up not only in science but also in mathematics, where we have discovered hard limits to our methods of proof: there are unprovable truths.

If science isn’t eliminating places where God might hide, hasn’t it at least made God unnecessary, replacing the creative role once assigned to God with the creative power of chance? This is a common assumption, but one that fails to understand the modern theory of chance. This theory is modeled by a series of axioms, among them the Kolmogorov axioms of probability theory, and various axioms for stochastic systems. In the case of probability theory, for instance, these axioms define the properties of a probability measure: It must be an additive function on events whose maximum sum is 1, and so on. Any process in nature that can be modeled by these axioms is taken to be a  probabilistic process, a work of chance. But this leaves completely open the interpretation of these axioms. Subjectivists claim that the indeterminacies modeled in probability theory simply reflect our own epistemological limitations; objectivists claim that the indeterminacies are not merely in our heads, but in the objective world itself. Neither interpretation precludes a God orchestrating the probabilistic process. All the mathematics can do is describe the essential properties of such a process, regardless of its origin, and without constraining the nature of its origin.

Indifferent Neural Facts
If modern theories of chance do not preclude the possible agency of God behind random processes, surely at least the recent brain imaging and TMS studies show that God is simply a figment of our brains, not to be taken seriously. But this conclusion is by no means dictated by the neural facts. Every one of our perceptions, not just our perceptions of God, can be correlated with neural activity. Surely it is a mistake to take none of our perceptions seriously. To do so would lead to quick and certain death. We must be careful, then, in sorting through which perceptions to take seriously and which not. And the neural facts don’t a priori tell us which way to treat God. If there were no God, and God was simply a figment of our imagination, then we might expect to find the neural correlates of God perception that we do. On the other hand, if there were a God, and God wanted us to perceive God, then one might equally expect to find the neural correlates of God perception that we do. The neural facts are indifferent to the conclusion we should draw here.

This indifference of facts holds more generally. There is no evidence from the sciences or elsewhere that logically compels belief or disbelief in God. It is elementary in the philosophy of science that no matter how much data one collects, there will always be infinitely many theories compatible with that data, and that make contradictory predictions about the outcomes of new experiments. It is because the theories of science are not logically dictated (although surely influenced) by the facts that scientific theory building is such an interesting and nontrivial enterprise. The atheist, then, can marshal an array of evidence that there is no God, and the theist that there is. In neither case can the evidence logically prove the claim. Both choices are, equally, a step of faith.


Memo to Hawking: There’s Still Room for God By Roger Scruton

September 28, 2010

Roger Scruton

Mr. Scruton, a philosopher, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. He has specialized in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates from the standpoint of a conservative thinker and is well known as a powerful polemicist.  He has written widely in the press on political and cultural issues. This is a short article that was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal.

Neither Kant nor Einstein thought physics explained everything. I have another scientist who will weigh in on that thought for tomorrow’s post. In the meantime, Roger Scruton’s wonderful reply to Stephen Hawking…

How did the universe begin? Some think the question has no answer — that it lies beyond the limits of human reason. Others think the question has an answer, but that the answer depends not on reason but on faith.

What almost no one believes is that there is a single, rational scientific theory that tells us how the universe emerged from the primeval nothingness. How could there be such a thing?

When Isaac Newton proposed his laws of gravity, he did so in a spirit of awe and reverence before the simplicity and beauty of the physical world. He did not doubt that so perfect a design implied a yet more perfect designer.

Immanuel Kant, who believed that Newton’s laws of gravity are not merely true but necessarily true, argued that we humans lack the ability to comprehend the universe as a whole, and thus that we can never construct a valid argument for a designer. Our thinking can take us from one point to another along the chain of events. But it cannot take us to a point outside the chain, from which we can pose the question of an original cause.

Indeed the question of how the universe began does not make sense. The concept of cause applies to the objects of experience, linking past to future through universal laws. When we ask about the universe as a whole we are attempting to go beyond possible experience into a realm where the concept of cause has no purchase, and where the writ of reason does not run.

All physicists since Kant have been influenced by this argument. Some admit the point, like Albert Einstein, Others, like Stephen Hawking, express the point in a language of their own.

But Mr. Hawking now wishes to break with this consensus and to argue that science actually does have an answer to the question of origins. We can know how the universe was created, he suggests, since the laws of physics imply that there are limiting conditions, in which universes come into being by the operation of those very laws. There is no room for the creator, since there is no need for Him. The laws of physics do it all by themselves.

Mr. Hawking, of course, dazzles us with his scientific discoveries. Einstein broke with the common-sense view of the world when he decided to treat time as a fourth dimension, on a par with the three dimensions of space. Mr. Hawking gives us dimension upon dimension, assuming that because every continuum can be squeezed into the axioms of a geometry there is no limit to the number of dimensions in which we humans find ourselves suspended. Nor is there a limit to the number of universes, even though we happen to inhabit only one of them and the others may be forever inaccessible to us.

The laws of physics are fast ceasing to be laws of the universe and are becoming laws of a “multiverse” instead. By the time people absorb all of these shifts, they have little strength left to dissent from the view that “the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing” or to question Mr. Hawking’s conclusion that therefore there is no need for God.

But what exactly has changed? Have we really moved on from the position that Kant presented? Have we really lifted ourselves outside of everything and everywhere, and achieved the view from nowhere that tells us how things began?

If Mr. Hawking is right, the answer to the question “What created the universe?” is “The laws of physics.” But what created the laws of physics? How is it that these strange and powerful laws, and these laws alone, apply to the world?

There are those who will say that the question has no answer —that it lies at or beyond the limits of human thought. And there are those who will say that the question has an answer, but that it is answered not by reason but by faith.

I say that perhaps, in the end, they are the same position. That is what Kant believed. You find out the limits of scientific understanding, he said. And beyond those limits lies the realm of morality, commitment and trust.

Kant, who destroyed all the systems of metaphysics and dug a grave for theology, was also a believer, who, as he put it, “attacked the claims of reason in order to make room for those of faith.” It seems to me that he was right.


The Attention of Awaiting God – Simone Weil

September 27, 2010

Simone Weil

A French/English translation of one of Ms. Weil’s more profound ruminations. An adaptation of material  from I found reading the French slowed me down to really appreciate the English translation.

In Réflexion sur le bon usage des études scolaires en vue de l’Amour de Dieu (Reflections On The Good Usage Of School Studies In View Of The Love Of God In Attente De Dieu), Weil expands on her idea of attention as the doorway to God.

La prière est faite d’attention. C’est l’orientation vers Dieu de toute l’attention dont l’âme est capable. La qualité de l’attention est pour beaucoup dans la qualité de la prière. La chaleur du coeur ne peut pas y suppléer.

Prayer is made of attention. It is the direction towards God of all the attention that the soul is capable of. The quality of the attention makes for much of the quality of the prayer. It cannot be replaced by the heart’s warmth.


Seule la partie la plus haute de l’attention entre en contact avec Dieu, quand la prière est assez intense et pure pour qu’un tel contact s’établisse ; mais toute l’attention est tournée vers Dieu.

Only the highest part of the attention comes into contact with God, when the prayer is intense and pure enough for such a contact to occur; but all the attention is directed towards God.


For Weil, learning attention gives school its spiritual dimension. The repeated practice of this passive faculty is profoundly religious, for attention transforms the student without his realizing it, by putting him in the same metaphysical space in which he can encounter God.


Bien qu’aujourd’hui on semble l’ignorer, la formation de la faculté d’attention est le but véritable et presque l’unique intérêt des études. La plupard des exercices scolaires ont aussi un certain intérêt intrinsèque ; mais cet intérêt est secondaire. Tous les exercices qui font vraiment appel au pouvoir d’attention sont intéressants au même titre et presque également.

Although today this seems unknown, the training of the faculty of attention is the true goal and almost only value of all study. Most school exercises have a certain intrinsic value, but this is secondary. All exercises that require the same power of attention are of interest, almost equally so.


Jamais, en aucun cas, aucun effort d’attention véritable n’est perdu. Toujours il est pleinement efficace spirituellement, et par suite aussi, par surcroît, sur le plan inférieur de l’intelligence, car toute lumière spirituelle éclaire l’intelligence.

There is never a case when an effort of attention is lost. It will always be spiritually effective, and, also in the long run, effective on the inferior level of intelligence, for any spiritual light illuminates intelligence.


Si on cherche avec une véritable attention la solution d’un problème de géométrie, et si, au bout d’une heure, on n’est pas plus avancé qu’en commençant, on a néanmoins avancé, durant chaque minute de cette heure, dans une autre dimention plus mystérieuse. Sans qu’on le sente, sans qu’on le sache, cet effort en apparence stérile et sans fruit a mis plus de lumière dans l’âme. Le fruit se retrouvera un jour, plus tard, dans la prière… cela est certain, cela ne fait aucun doute.

If one seeks the solution to a geometry problem with real attention, and if, after an hour, one has made no progress whatsoever, one has nevertheless progressed during each minute of this hour, in another more mysterious dimension. Without feeling it or knowing it, this apparently sterile and fruitless effort has put more light into the soul. The fruit will be found one day, later, in prayer. .. this much is certain, of this there is no doubt.


In one of her trademark digressions, Weil ties attention together with faith, knowledge and desire in the space of five brilliant paragraphs. The spiritual seeker must start with a blind faith that is transformed into knowledge through experience. This blind faith is a desire for God which manifests itself by the repeated practice of attention, by awaiting God.

Les certitudes de cette espèce sont expérimentales. Mais si l’on n’y croit pas avant de les avoir éprouvées, si du moins on ne se conduit pas comme si on y croyait, on ne fera jamais l’expérience qui donne accès à de telles certitudes.

Il y a là une espèce de contradiction. Il en est ainsi, à partir d’un certain niveau, pour toutes les connaissances utiles au progrès spirituel. Si on ne les adopte pas comme règle de conduite avant de les avoir vérifiées, si on n’y reste pas attaché pendant longtemps seulement par la foi, une foi d’abord ténébreuse et sans lumière, on ne les transformera jamais en certitudes. La foi est la condition indispensable.


Certitudes of this kind are arrived at by experience. But if one doesn’t believe them before experiencing them, if at least one does not act as if one believed them, one will never undergo the experience that gives access to such certitudes.

There is here a kind of contradiction. After a certain level, this is the way it is with all bits of knowledge that are useful for spiritual progress. If they are not adopted as rules of conduct before they are verified, if one does not stay attached to them by faith alone, a faith that starts in the dark without light, one will never transform them into certitudes. Faith is the indispensable condition.

Le meilleur soutien de la foi est la garantie que si l’on demande à son Père du pain, il ne donne pas des pierres. En dehors même de toute croyance religieuse explicite, toutes les fois qu’un être humain accomplit un effort d’attention avec le seul désir de devenir plus apte à saisir la vérité, il acquiert cette aptitude plus grande, même si son effort n’a produit aucun fruit visible.

Un conte esquimau explique ainsi l’origine de la lumière : “Le corbeau qui dans la nuit éternelle ne pouvait pas trouver de nourriture, désira la lumière,et la terre s’éclaira.” S’il y a vraiment désir, si l’objet du désir est vraiment la lumière, le désir de lumière produit la lumière.

Il y a vraiment désir quand il y a effort d’attention. C’est vraiment la lumière qui est désirée si tout autre mobile est absent. Quand même les efforts d’attention resteraient en apparence stériles pendant des années, un jour une lumière exactement proportionnelle à ces efforts inondera l’âme.

The best support for faith is the guarantee that if you ask your Father for bread, he will not give you stones. Outside of any explicitly religious belief, every time a human being accomplishes the effort of attention with the sole desire of becoming more apt at apprehending truth, he acquires a greater aptitude, even if his effort does not produce any visible fruit.

An eskimo tale explains the origin of light thus: “The blackbird could not find food in the eternal night and he desired light, and the earth lit up.” If there is true desire, if the object of desire is truly light, the desire for light produces light.

There is true desire when there is an effort of attention. It is truly light that is desired if all other motives are absent. Even if the efforts of attention remained apparently sterile for years, one day a light exactly proportional to these efforts shall inundate the soul.


Attention is akin to philosophy, a love of truth. Attention requires desire for truth, which is God. Like all desire, attention cannot be driven by effort, but is motivated by the joy of truth seeking. The burning desire that drives attention purifies the soul.


La volonté, celle qui au besoin fait serrer les dents et supporter la souffrance, est l’arme principale de l’apprenti dans le travail manuel. Mais contrairement à ce que l’on croit d’ordinaire, elle n’a presque aucune place dans l’étude.

L’intelligence ne peut être menée que par le désir. Pour qu’il y ait désir, il faut qu’il y ait plaisir et joie. L’intelligence ne grandit et ne porte de fruits que dans la joie. La joie d’apprendre est aussi indispensable aux études que la respiration aux coureurs.

C’est ce rôle du désir dans l’étude qui permet d’en faire une préparation à la vie spirituelle. Car le désir, orienté vers Dieu, est la seule force capable de faire monter l’âme. Ou plutôt c’est Dieu seul qui vient saisir l’âme et la lève, mais le désir seul oblige Dieu à descendre. Il ne vient qu’à ceux qui lui demandent de venir ; et ceux qui demandent souvent, longtemps, ardemment, il ne peut pas s’empêcher de descendre vers eux.

L’attention est un effort, le plus grand des efforts peut-être, mais c’est un effort négatif. par lui-même il ne comporte pas la fatigue. Quand la fatigue se fait sentir, l’attention n’est presque plus possible, à moins qu’on soit déjà bien exercé ; il vaut mieux alors s’abandonner, chercher une détente, puis un peu plus tard recommencer, se déprendre et se reprendre comme on inspire et expire.

Il y a quelque chose dans notre âme qui répugne à la véritable attention beaucoup plus violemment que la chair ne répugne à la fatigue. Ce quelque chose est beaucoup plus proche du mal que la chair. C’est pourquoi, toutes les fois qu’on fait vraiment attention, on détruit du mal en soi. Si on fait attention avec cette intention, un quart d’heure d’attention vaut beaucoup de bonnes oeuvres.

Will power, that which is used, if necessary, to clench one’s teeth and bear suffering, is the principal tool of the apprentice in manual labor. But, contrary to popular belief, will power has almost no place in study.

Intelligence can only be directed by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy. Intelligence only grows and bears fruits in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable to studies as breathing is to runners.

The role that desire plays in studying is what enables it to be a preparation for spiritual life. For desire, oriented by God, is the only force capable of lifting the soul. Rather, it is God alone who seazes the soul and lifts it, but desire alone that makes God come down. He does not come to those who do not ask him to; and he cannot help himself from coming down to those who ask him often, at length and fervently.

Attention is an effort, the greatest of efforts perhaps, but it is a negative effort, and as such does not include fatigue. When fatigue sets in, attention is almost not possible anymore, unless one is already well exercised; it is better in that case to abandon oneself, to search for a break, and to start again a little later, to ungrasp oneself and grasp oneself like one inhales and exhales.

There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue. That something is much closer to evil than flesh is. That is why, every time we truly give our attention, we destroy some evil in ourselves. If one pays attention with this intention, fifteen minutes of attention is worth a lot of good works.


This is as close as Weil comes to a concrete description of the passive action of attention: a concentrated but empty awaiting for truth.

L’attention consiste à suspendre sa pensée, à la laisser disponible, vide et pénétrable à l’objet, à maintenir en soi-même à proximité de la pensée, mais à un niveau inférieur et sans contact avec elle, les diverses connaissances acquises qu’on est forcé d’utiliser. La pensée doit être, à toutes les pensées particulières et déjà formées, comme un homme sur une montagne qui, regardant devant lui, aperçoit en même temps sous lui, mais sans les regarder, beaucoup de forêts et de plaines. Et surtout, la pensée doit être vide, en attente, ne rien chercher, mais être prête à recevoir dans sa vérité nue l’objet qui va y pénétrer.

Attention consists in suspending thought, in leaving it available, empty and subject to penetration by the object, in maintaining the various acquired knowledges one is forced to use near by to thought, but at an inferior level and without contact to thought. Our thought must be, with regard to all the already formed specific thoughts, like a man on a mountian who, looking in front of him, sees without looking at them many forests and plains below him. And especially, thought must remain empty, awaiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that will penetrate it.

Tous les contre-sens dans les versions, toutes les absurdités dans la solutions des problèmes de géométrie, toutes les gaucheries du style et toutes les défectuosités de l’enchaînement des idées dans les devoirs de français, tout cela vient de ce que la pensée s’est précipitée hâtivement sur quelque chose, et étant ainsi prématurément remplie n’a plus été disponible pour la vérité. La cause est toujours qu’on a voulu être actif ; on a voulu chercher. On peut vérifier cela chaque fois, à chaque faute, si l’on remonte à la racine. Il n’y a pas de meilleur exercice que cette vérification. Car cette vérité est de celles auxquelles on ne peut croire qu’en les éprouvant cent et mille fois. Il en est ainsi de toutes les vérités essentielles.

All contradictions in translations, all absurdities in geometry solutions, any awkwardness in style and faulty reasonings in French exercises, all this comes from thought rushing at something hastily, and having prematurely filled itself, it is no longer available for truth. The cause is always having wanted to be active; one wanted to seek. One can verify this every time, for every error, if one goes back to the root. There is no better exercise than this verification. For this truth is among those which can only be believed by experiencing them a thousand and one times. This is the way of all essential truths.


Les biens les plus précieux ne doivent pas être cherchés, mais attendus. Car l’homme ne peut pas les trouver par ses propres forces, et s’il se met à leur recherche, il trouvera à la place des faux biens dont il ne saura pas discerner la fausseté.

La solution d’un problème de géométrie n’est pas en elle-même un bien précieux, mais la même loi s’applique aussi à elle, car elle est l’image d’un bien précieux. Étant un petit fragment de vérité particulière, elle est une image pure de la Vérité unique, éternelle et vivante, cette vérité qui a dit un jour d’une voix humaine : “Je suis la vérité.”

Pensé ainsi, tout exercice scolaire ressemble à un sacrement.

Il y a pour chaque exercice scolaire une manière spécifique d’attendre la vérité avec désir et sans se permettre de la chercher. Une manière de faire attention aux données d’un problème de géométrie sans en chercher la solution, aux mots d’un texte latin ou grec sans en chercher le sens, d’attendre, quand on écrit, que le mot juste vienne de lui-même se placer sous la plume en repoussant seulement les mots insuffisants.

The most precious goods should not be sought out, but waited for. For man cannot find them on his own, and if he starts to seek them, he will find in their place false goods whose falsehood he won’t be able to discern.

The solution to a geometry problem is not in itself a precious good, but the same law applies to it, because it is an image of a precious good. Being a small fragment of a particular truth, it is a pure image of the only Truth, eternal and alive, this truth that spoke out one day with a human voice saying: “I am the truth.”

In this light, all school exercises resemble sacrements.

There is for each school exercise a specific manner of waiting for truth with desire and without letting oneself seek it out. A manner of paying attention to the elements of a geometry problem without seraching for a solution, to the words of Latin or Greek text without looking for their meaning, of waiting, when one writes, for the right word to come of itself and place itself under the pen, and merely pushing away the insufficient words.


Weil refers to one of her favored gospel parables — that of the watchful servant in Luke 12:36 — to frame the analogy of seeking truth to seeking God, an analogy that she urges professors and spiritual teachers to emphasize to their students.

… l’analogie entre l’attitude de l’intelligence dans chacun de ces exercices et la situation de l’âme qui, la lampe bien garnie d’huile, attend son époux avec confiance et désir. Que chaque adolescent aimant, pendant qu’il fait une version latine, souhaite devenir par cette version un peu plus proche de l’instant où il sera cet esclave qui, pendant que son maître est à une fête, veille et écoute près de la porte pour ouvrir dès qu’on frappe. Le maître alors installe l’esclave à table et lui sert lui-même à manger.

… The analogy between the attitude of intelligence in each of these exercises and the situation of the soul who, with a lamp well filled with oil, waits for its husband with trust and desire. May each loving adolescent, while he does a latin translation, wish to become through this translation a little closer to the instant where, while his master is at a feast, he waits up and listens near the door to open it as soon as there is a knock. The master will then sit the slave at his table and he will serve him to eat.


For Weil, the awaiting involved in attention cannot be refused by God. As said above, “If you ask your Father for bread, he will not give you stones.” She goes so far as to say that attention is the act that forces God to come to us with his love.

C’est seulement cette attente, cette attention qui peuvent obliger le maître à un tel excès de tendresse. Quand l’esclave s’est épuisé de fatigue aux champs, le maître à son retour, lui dit : “Prépare mon repas et sers-moi.” Et il le traite d’esclave inutile qui fait seulement ce qui lui est commandé.

Certes il faut faire dans le domaine de l’action tout ce qui est commandé, au prix de n’importe quel degré d’effort, de fatigue et de souffrance, car celui qui désobéit n’aime pas. Mais après cela on n’est qu’un esclave inutile. C’est une condition de l’amour, mais elle ne suffit pas.

Ce qui force le maître à se faire l’esclave de son esclave, à l’aimer, ce n’est rien de tout cela ; c’est encore moins une recherche que l’esclave aurait la témérité d’entreprendre de sa propre initiative ; c’est uniquement la veille, l’attente et l’attention.

It is only this awaiting, this attention that can oblige the master to such an excess of tenderness. When the slave has exhausted himself in the fields, the master at his return, says to him: “Prepare my meal and serve me.” And he treats his slave as a useless one who does only what he is told.

Of course one has to do everything that is commanded in the realm of action, at the price on any degree of effort, of fatigue and of suffering, for he who disobeys loves not. But after all that, one is still nothing but a useless slave. Action is a condition for love, but it does not suffice.

That which forces the master to make himself the slave of his slave, to love him, is none of this; even less a search that the slave would have the temerity to undertake on his own initiative; it is only the waiting up, the awaiting and attention.


For Weil, attention is the stuff of love, and in particular of the love needed to reach the malheureux, the wretched souls stricken by malheur.

Ce n’est pas seulement l’amour de Dieu qui a pour substance l’attention. L’amour du prochain dont nous savons que c’est le même amour, est fait de la même substance.

Les malheureux n’ont pas besoin d’autre chose en ce monde que d’hommes capables de faire attention à eux. La capacité de faire attention à un malheureux est chose très rare, très difficile ; c’est presque un miracle. Presque tous ceux qui croient avoir cette capacité ne l’ont pas. La chaleur, l’élan du coeur, la pitié n’y suffisent pas.

The love of God is not the only thing whose substance is attention. The love of your neighbor which we know to be the same love, is made of the same substance.

The malheureux need nothing else in this world but men capable of paying attention to them. The capability to pay attention to the malheureux is something very rare, very difficult; it’s almost a miracle. Almost all those who think they have this capacity, don’t. Warmth, the heart’s reaching out, pity, all these are not sufficient.


Dans la première légende du Graal, il est dit que le Graal, pierre miraculeuse qui a la vertu de l’hostie consacrée rassasie toute faim, appartient à quiconque dira le premier au gardien de la pierre, roi aux trois quarts paralysé par la plus douloureuse blessure : “Quel est ton tourment ?”.

La plénitude de l’amour du prochain, c’est simplement d’être capable de lui demander “Quel est ton tourment ?” C’est savoir que le malheureux existe, non pas comme unité dans une collection, non pas comme un exemplaire de la catégorie sociale étiquetée “malheureux”, mais en tant qu’homme, exactement semblable à nous, qui a été un jour frappé et marqué d’une marque inimitable par le malheur. Pour cela il est suffisant, mais indispensable, de savoir poser sur lui un certain regard.

Ce regard est d’abord un regard attentif, où l’âme se vide de tout contenu propre pour recevoir en elle-même l’être qu’elle regarde tel qu’il est, dans toute sa vérité. Seul en est capable celui qui est capable d’attention.

In the first legend of the Grail — a miraculous stone which has the virtue of a consecrated wafer that sates all hunger — it is said that the Grail belongs to the first person to ask the stone’s gardian, a king almost completely paralysed by a painful wound, “What is your torment?”.

The fullness of love for your neighbor, is simply being capable of asking them “What torments you?”. It’s knowing that the malheureux exists, not as one of many, not as an example of a social category labeled malheureux, but as a man, exactly like us, who was struck one day and marked by the inimitable mark of malheur. To do this it is sufficient, but indispensable, to know to cast a certain gaze upon him.

This gaze is first an attentive gaze, where the soul empties itself of all its own content in order to receive in itself the being who it looks at as he is, in all his truth. This can only be done by those capable of attention.


Reading Selections from “The Weight of Smut” by Mary Eberstadt

September 24, 2010

Mary Eberstadt is a contributing writer to First Things, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and author of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism. The full article was printed in First Things this past June.

Sexual Obesity
[T]he emerging social phenomenon of what can appropriately be called “sexual obesity”: the widespread gorging on pornographic imagery that is also deleterious and unhealthy, though far less remarked on than that other epidemic — and nowhere near an object of universal public concern. That complacency may now be changing. The term sexual obesity comes from Mary Ann Layden, a psychiatrist who runs the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania. She sees the victims of Internet-pornography consumption in her practice, day in and day out. She also knows what most do not: Quietly, patiently, and irrefutably, an empirical record of the harms of sexual obesity is being assembled piecemeal via the combined efforts of psychologists, sociologists, addiction specialists, psychiatrists, and other authorities.

Young people who have been exposed to pornography are more likely to have multiple lifetime sexual partners, more likely to have had more than one sexual partner in the last three months, more likely to have used alcohol or other substances at their last sexual encounter, and—no surprise here—more likely to have scored higher on a “sexual permissiveness” test. They are also more likely to have tried risky forms of sex. They are also more likely to engage in forced sex and more likely to be sexual offenders.

The Numbers
Parallels between the two epidemics are striking. Much like the more commonly understood obesity, the phenomenon of sexual obesity permeates the population — though unlike regular obesity, of course, pornography consumption is mostly (though not entirely) a male thing. At the same time, evidence also shows that sexual obesity does share with its counterpart this critical common denominator: It afflicts the subset of human beings who form the first generation immersed in this consumption, many of whom have never known a world without it — the young.

The data about the immersion of young Americans in pornography are startling and disturbing. One 2008 study focused on undergraduate and graduate students ages 18 to 26 across the country found that more than two-thirds of men — and one out of every ten women in the sample — viewed pornography more than once a month. Another study showed that first-year college students using sexually explicit material exhibited these troubling features: increased tolerance, resulting in a turn toward more bizarre and esoteric material; increased risk of body-image problems, especially among girls; and erroneous and exaggerated conceptions of how prevalent certain sexual behaviors, including risky and even dangerous behaviors, actually are.

In 2004, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported that 65 percent of boys ages 16 and 17 reported having friends who regularly download Internet pornography — and, given that pornography is something people lie “down” about in surveys as well as in life, it seems safe to say those numbers underestimate today’s actual consumption, perhaps even significantly….

Even young people who don’t go looking for pornography are now routinely exposed — largely through incursions into popular media, including on phones (the “sexting” phenomenon), in video games, in pop music, and on television. A Kaiser Family Foundation study from 2005, for example, revealed that the number of sex scenes on television doubled between 1998 and 2005. The Foundation had previously noted that some 70 percent of youths aged 15 to 17 accidently came across pornography online. Even more startling, a 2006 Youth Internet Safety Survey of 1500 youths showed that one in seven reported unwanted sexual solicitation, and one in eleven reported being harassed online.

So What
Why should people who are not part of that consumption even care about it? The varieties of the libertarian shrug extend even to those averse to it. Pornography indeed may be morally wrong, many of those people would also say (and of course major religions would agree); but, apart from the possible damage to the user’s soul, if you believe in such a thing, what really is the social harm of smut?

This lackadaisical attitude — this entrenched refusal to look seriously at what the computer screen has really wrought — is widespread. Religious people, among other people simply disgusted by the subject, understandably wish to speak in public of almost anything else. Closet users, and they are apparently legion, will probably already have stopped reading these words — or any others potentially critical of pornography — for reasons of their own; such complicity is probably the deepest font of omertà (vocab: popular attitude and code of honor conspiracy of silence, common in areas of southern Italy) on the subject. And chronic users above all have their own fierce reasons for promoting the anything-goes-as-long-as-it’s-private patter — an interesting phenomenon about which more will be said further on.

And yet this hands-off approach to the matter of sexual obesity — this unwitting collusion of disparate interested parties masquerading as a social consensus — remains wrong from alpha to omega, as a new document signed by fifty experts from various fields and distilling just some of the recent empirical evidence (: “The Social Costs of Pornography: A Statement of Findings and Recommendations,” just published by the Witherspoon Institute of New Jersey), goes to show…

Bursting through the academically neutral language, the studies, the survey data, and the econometrics were the skin and bones of the very human stories that went into it all: the marriages lost or in tatters; the sexual problems among the addicted; the constant slide, on account of higher tolerance, into ever edgier circles of this hell; the children and teenagers lured into participating in various ways in this awful world in the effort to please romantic partners or exploitive adults. This report, in sum, like the conference that preceded it, answers definitively the libertarian question of “So what about pornography?” with a solid list of “Here’s what” — eight documented findings about the manifold risks of warping the sexual template with pornographic imagery.

Pornography Use Is A Private Matter.
Perhaps the queen bee of lies about pornography, this is also the easiest to take down. For while consumption of the substance may be private (or not, as airline travelers and library patrons and others in the public square have lately been learning), the fallout from some of that consumption is anything but.

Consider just a few examples from recent studies on people younger than eighteen. Adolescent users of pornography are more likely to intend to have sex and to engage in more frequent sexual activity. They are more likely to test positive for Chlamydia. Three separate studies have found among adolescents a strong correlation between pornography consumption and engaging in various sexual activities.

The exceedingly well-documented social costs of adolescent sexual activity, alongside the health costs now accumulating, alone torpedo the refrain that Internet pornography use today is “private.” Now consider a few more findings concerning adults rather than kids. At a November 2003 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (comprising the nation’s top 1600 divorce and matrimonial-law attorneys), 62 percent of the 350 attendees said the Internet had played a role in divorces during the last year. In especially germane research not yet published, economists Kirk Doran and Joseph Price are examining data from the General Social Survey (GSS) to assess the negative impact of pornography on other aspects of marriage. They report that, among individuals who have ever been married, those who say they’ve seen an X-rated movie in the last year are 25 percent more likely to be divorced and 13 percent less likely to identify themselves as “very happy” with life in general.

Divorce, as everyone knows by now, is associated with a variety of adverse financial and other outcomes as well as with problems for children and adolescents affected by it. Here too, private behavior is clearly exacting public costs.

Yet with all due respect to the social science, not everyone needs it to know that pornography is more than just a private thing. Imagine your teenage daughter walking down the beach. Half the men on it have been watching sex on the Internet within the last few days, and half have not. Which ones do you want watching her? How can their “private” behavior possibly be said to be confined to home, when their same eyes with which they view it travel along with them everywhere else?

Pornography Use Is A Guy Thing
It only bothers women. In fact, some of the saddest and most riveting testimony on this topic concerns exactly this: the harm that pornography consumption can do to men immersed in it.

Consider the insights of Pamela Paul, a reporter for Time magazine, who interviewed in depth more than 100 heterosexual users of pornography, 80 percent of them men, for her 2005 book Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. This book — the best yet written in laymen’s terms about the impact of Internet pornography on users themselves — is remarkable for several reasons. Just one is the unforgettably sad portrait that emerges, sometimes unwittingly, from habitual users themselves. “Countless men,” she summarizes from the interviews, “have described to me how, while using pornography, they have lost the ability to relate to or be close to women. They have trouble being turned on by ‘real’ women, and their sex lives with their girlfriends or wives collapse.”

The same point has been echoed by medical authorities including Norman Doidge, a doctor specializing in neuropsychiatry and author of The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Treating men in the early to mid-1990s for their pornography habits, he found it a common refrain that many were no longer able to have intercourse with their own wives. “Pornographers,” he concludes, “promise healthy pleasure and relief from sexual tension, but what they often deliver is an addiction, tolerance, and an eventual decrease in pleasure. Paradoxically, the male patients I worked with often craved pornography but didn’t like it.”

Habituation And Tolerance
Just as heavy drinkers and drug users over time require higher doses of substances to achieve the same effect, so apparently do some chronic users of pornography come to require harder-core and edgier material. From another of Pamela Paul’s descriptions: “Men . . . told me that they found themselves wasting countless hours looking at pornography on their televisions and DVD players, and especially online. They looked at things they would once have considered appalling — bestiality, group sex, hard-core S&M, genital torture, child pornography.”

This same descent into the particular pit of knowing that one is doing something wrong, and still being unable to stop oneself, echoes through other accounts by clinicians of what they hear from some patients. In a widely read article in the London Spectator in 2003, British writer Sean Thomas courageously catalogued his own such descent, including into terrain that will not be described here. As he concluded, Internet pornography “revealed to me that I had an unquantifiable variety of sexual fantasies and quirks and that the process of satisfying these desires online only led to more interest….”

A Spiritual Descent
As one military man put it with unusual candor in a particularly poignant (also anonymous) e-mail to the editor:

“I absolutely agree it is damaging. It damages my respect for my wife, and she has done nothing to deserve that damage. It damages my self-esteem and respect for myself, because I know it is not helpful to our life, to our marriage, to our love. . . . It reduces my satisfaction in a wonderful woman. It makes me yearn for things that I should not want. It is disruptive to my inner peace. I don’t like myself when I’m looking at porn. I don’t like the way I feel about myself when I’m looking at porn. . . . But I can only do without it about six months. . . . It has been an endless cycle.”

Or as Roger Scruton put it memorably at the Witherspoon conference, summarizing the philosophical aspect of this particular form of sadness that this new form of obesity can bring: “This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.”

It’s Only Pictures Of Consenting Adults
Unless it is computer simulated, pornography is never only about pictures. Every single person on the screen is somebody’s sister, cousin, son, niece, or mother; every one of them stands in a human relation to the world.

The notion for starters that those in the “industry” itself are not being harmed by what they do cannot survive even the briefest reading of testimonials to the contrary by those who have turned their backs on it, among them Playboy bunnies (including Izabella St. James, author of Bunny Tales). It is a world rife with everything one would want any genuinely loved one to avoid like the plague: drugs, exploitation, physical harm, AIDS.

Nor can that defense survive the extremely troubling — or what ought to be extremely troubling — connections between pornography and prostitution.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has notably taken the lead in investigating and throwing light on the sordid phenomenon of “sex trafficking,” both here and abroad. Yet trafficking, as the Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have both noted, is often associated with pornography — for example, via cameras and film equipment found when trafficking circles are broken up. Plainly, the reality of the human beings behind many of those images on the Internet is poorer, dirtier, druggier — and younger — than pious appeals to “consenting adults” can withstand. Is this world really what the libertarian defenders of pornography want to subsidize?

Once again, who even needs all that social science? Perhaps the most telling response to the “pictures” defense is rhetorical. Ask even the most committed user whether he wants his own daughter or son in that line of work — and then ask why it’s all right to have other people’s daughters and sons making it instead.

Malice And Venom Unique
Several experts have also noted one more interesting phenomenon that most people who have ever written on this thankless subject will verify: Telling the truth about pornography is practically guaranteed to elicit malice and venom unique in their potency from its defenders.

This aspect of sexual obesity too, I believe, tells us something of note. Blogging recently about the subject on National Review Online, for example, Kathryn Jean Lopez remarked in public about the quality of the torrent of emotional e-mails her comments provoked. Many of them, she reported, were “terrifying.” Cathy Ruse, who worked on the issue of pornography during the mid-1990s for the National Law Center for Children and Families and again later for the Family Research Council, reports similarly: “I have been involved in various public policy debates in the United States for twenty years and I have never encountered anything like the pornography debates… I have never experienced attacks that were so abusive and personal, including angry ranting messages on my home telephone and horrible e-mails.”

Such unique vituperation, which has so far gone unremarked in any public discussion of pornography despite the fact that it is commonplace, demands inspection in its own right. In fact, it may be the surest proof altogether of just how addictive Internet pornography can be. Although academic experts may continue to battle over exactly what is meant by “addiction,” surely the tremendously defensive response in the public square by itself settles the question to any reasonable person’s satisfaction. What does it tell us that, when faced with any attempt to make the case that this substance should be harder to get than it is, some reliable subset of defenders can be counted on to respond more like animals than like people?

All of which goes to show that there is nothing alarmist whatsoever in arguing that we ought to be alarmed about the first generation raised on Internet pornography. In speaking on college campuses about other issues lately, I have been struck by how many students — usually, though not only, girls — have come up afterward and confided their view that pornography use is the number-one factor warping relations between the sexes these days.

I have also heard at least a few boys confide that it’s hard to find girls on campus who have not themselves been drawn in to some form of the pornographic subculture — via “sexting,” say, or in the effort to please previous boyfriends, or in the deliberately provocative pictures of themselves on Facebook and elsewhere.

What, if anything, can be done about this other obesity epidemic? For starters, we could use a campaign that might promise to do to pornography what was ultimately done to tobacco — a restigmatization based on the evolving record of fact. What’s needed is nothing less than the kind of leadership that turned smoking, in the course of a single generation, from cool to uncool — one eventually summoning support high and low, ranging from celebrities, high-school teachers and principals, counselors, former users, and anyone else who knows they belong in the coalition of the willing on this wretched issue.


Views of the Divine – Michael Novak

September 23, 2010


Michael Novak

Another reading selection taken from “No One Sees God,” Michael Novak scans our western understanding of the divine and focuses on some of the writings of the American philosopher, cognitive scientist and atheist Daniel Dennett.

The Greeks
The God reached by Aristotle and Plato might well have been, for all they knew, eternal. The most satisfying penetrations by the greatest of the Greeks conceived of God as the inner core of the Universe, its inner intelligence. They did not think of God as a Creator, but as an abiding intellectual presence. Their vision was not quite pantheist; they held that God is more than the sum of all the intelligibility in the universe; God is more than an inner part of the universe.

They seemed to think that their eternal, immutable, radiant, all — seeing nous must, in fact, be separate from the earth as cause is from effect. That cause may be present everywhere in its effects — as the heat of a fire can extend to the farthest corners of the room. But the fire is not identical with the heat. They thought God is not identical with the universe, but present everywhere, within all things. Not a personal God, but a God whose nature is intelligence and a capacity to choose.

The Greeks could not imagine God to be moved by some cause outside Himself. He is a “necessary being,” as they named Him, in comparison with perishable things. Yet even in diffusing his being and his intelligence into all things, the imperishable, unchangeable God of the Greeks allows contingency and freedom. He is not, like the God of Islam, Pure ‘Will, before whom the only possible response is submission. He is intelligence — Logos — the source of all the intelligence in conscious agents, and of all the intelligibility in inanimate things.

God’s free will was a little less clear to the Greeks than his intelligence. But then it was also not clear to them how human will is paired with human intelligence. Foreign to Plato was the cry of Saint Paul: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19, NIV). This common experience, stated so clearly, led Christian thinkers to recognize that simply knowing the good is not enough. To meet the data of human experience, a more sophisticated conception of the weakness of the will must be worked out than was achieved by the Greeks.

The Greek nous (in its highest, purest formulations) is not the biblical God. All by itself, the god the unaided human mind conceives of is closer to being a light infusing all things (by way of the radiant intelligibility poured into all things) than to a Creator who governs human affairs, watches over them as a kind Providence, and at death summons every human individual to a piercing Judgment, in which God is not deceived.

The nous of the Greeks is by contrast relatively unaware of human conduct, even unconcerned with it. This serene intelligence is neither within history nor overly concerned with history. The nous is eternal, unchanging, impervious to concerns emanating from his creatures. The nous is the god of irony and tragedy.

The Greeks believed in the efficacy of human action, especially in the defense of liberty; as in the wars of Sparta against the Persians, and of the Athenians against all corners. In this sense, the Greeks were not entirely fatalistic, passive, supinely submissive. Yet they did recognize the sometimes tragic blade that descends upon humans, willy-nilly. They believed in fighting to the bitter end, refusing to submit to the passivity called fatalism, defying Fate until their last breath. From that fight, they thought, springs heroism. As in Sisyphus, Prometheus, and Antigone.

In that fight, they displayed true love for liberty; in its raw, basic form.

The Greek conception of God, at its highest, is quite beautiful. Sometimes atheists who do not believe one bit in the Jewish/Christian God find the Greek god admirable, attractive, noble. That is why some hesitate to call themselves atheists. They do not believe in eternal life. They do not believe in the Christian God, or any sort of personal god. But they do not want to close their minds to every other concept of God. The conceptions of Plato, Plotinus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others appeal to them. They take no time to make a study of metaphysics, to define precisely all the contours of their background beliefs.

Inner Unities
In life, in existence, and in normal intellectual horizons something else seems to be active besides mere matter. Even in the photographs of nebulae, galaxies, and starbursts in scientific magazines, not to mention sunsets, the Grand Canyon, the marvels of the insect world, the patterns, within a grain of sand along the shore — human insight grasps far more than the mere material of what our senses report. The world of our experience seems to be suffused with intelligibilities which it takes our questioning minds a long time to plumb. All material things seem suffused, if an intellectual metaphor may be used here, with light. As when, at the moment an insight of ours grasps the inner unities that had eluded our understanding just a moment before, the metaphor we reach for is a light suddenly going on. Suddenly we see what had been in front of our eyes for a long time, without our being able to see it.

This is not to say that God’s creation does not take a wild, unpredictable, highly contingent adventure through history. But it is to say that the Creator’s relation to his creation is not that of a human being in time, as Dawkins Harris, Hitchens and other atheists normally imagine.

The god of Plato, Aristotle, and on through Einstein, is not a “person.” God does not have passions of sympathy, compassion love, or kindness. God is the all-permeating nous radiating intelligibility into all things, and inspiring in our breasts the restless, unconditioned drive to understand. The way humans reach “union” with God is by way of questioning coming to insight, understanding. Our finite minds catch a sliver of the great radiance that shines through all things: the beauty of the structure of the world. We admire.

For the Greeks, there is no Hebraic God who governs the affairs of humans in history and cares about human conduct and destiny. (Plato, though, is a little closer to thinking of God as the Good, knowing all things, inspiring in conscious, discriminating human beings the pursuit of goodness and justice. Humans never quite reach these goals, but keep being drawn toward them.)

For the atheist, the “problem of evil” is transmuted into a practical matter. If children cry in their beds at night, then in order to exercise our secular compassion on their behalf, we should take the practical steps to diminish their number. The role of the secular saint in alleviating suffering in this world, not only through science and medicine, but also through advances in agriculture and in water purification, and by a thousand other humane means, is no petty thing. On the contrary, like Dr Rieux in Albert Camus’s The Plague, the secular saint casts a very noble light.

For the atheist, though, the problem of goodness creates an intellectual problem. If everything is by chance and merely relative, why is it so natural for so many to be good — if not all the time, at least remarkably often? Why do some atheists try so hard to be good — good and public-spirited — and why are they so insistent on being credited with moral good?

For those atheists who are not nihilists, the intuitively obvious moral good — or at least the most reasonable good –is to promote human flourishing. Learning to be a person of conscience is good, for without conscience not even scientific papers would be reliable. Learning to cooperate with others is good, for in cooperation humans flourish much better than in a (vulgarly defined) Darwinian “jungle,” where dog eats dog and only the fittest survive. The evolutionary value of compassion, charity solidarity and other high human virtues has been boastfully pointed out by contemporary atheists, not least by the biologists among them.

Thus, the newest evolutionary biology turns out to be not so opposed to Christianity as atheists used to think. On the contrary, contemporary atheists are eager to show that any high virtues that Judaism and Christianity promote are better promoted by evolutionary biologists. In other words, you can have the distinctive historical virtues of Judaism and Christianity — for which both religions were once mocked — without necessarily believing in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. You can even believe in an impersonal nous who is identified with the beautiful and brilliant intellectual structure of the universe, without accepting the Jewish and/or Christian God. Anything Judaism can do, atheism can do better. Atheists can do Christian stuff better than Christians.

Design As Solely The Result Of Chance
It is quite stunning how again and again contemporary evolutionary biologists confirm the findings of classic Jewish or Christian morality — not in all respects, but in nearly all the most central ones. Indeed, they do so not only in ethics, but in the design they find so beautiful in the structure of the universe. They explain this design as completely and solely the result of chance. This is an implausible claim, to be sure, but they insist upon it. And then they add –and this is the kicker — that, yes, the design they detect does look as if it had been designed by a designer, but their science shows that it really wasn’t.

You don’t believe me? Reflect on these four passages from Daniel Dennett (easily replicable in Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and others). The first is this:

“It just stands to reason (doesn’t it?) that all the wonders of the living world have to have been arranged by some Intelligent Designer? It couldn’t all just be an accident, could it? And even if evolution by natural selection explains the design of living things, doesn’t the “fine tuning” of the laws of physics to make all this evolution possible require a Tuner?”

Dennett is pretty firm in his reply: “No, it doesn’t stand to reason, and, yes, it could all just be the result of ‘accidents’ exploited by the relentless regularities of nature, and, no, the fine tuning of the laws of physics can be explained without postulating an Intelligent Tuner”

His second quip is snappier: “Not one sperm in a billion accomplishes its life mission—thank goodness—but each is designed and equipped as if everything depended on its success.”. (Not a single one of them will stop to ask for directions.)

Blind, Directionless Evolutionary Processes ‘Discover’ Designs That Work?
Dennett’s third point begins thus: “…evolution provided animals with specific receptor molecules that respond to the concentration of high-energy sugars in anything they taste, and hard-wired these receptor molecules to the seeking machinery” Then he goes on: “Not all plants ‘chose’ the edible fruit-making bargain, but those that did had to make their fruits attractive in order to compete. It all made perfectly good sense, economically; it was a rational transaction, conducted at a slower than glacial pace over the eons, and of course no plant or animal had to understand any of this in order for the system to flourish.’

Now comes the great conclusion, with a fanfare: “Blind, directionless evolutionary processes ‘discover’ designs that work. They work because they have various features, and these features can be described and evaluated in retrospect as if they were the intended brainchildren of intelligent designers who had worked out the rationale for the design in advance”

Finally Dermett praises chance over Shakespeare: “The wonderful particularity of individuality of the creation was due, not to Shakespearean inventive genius, but to the incessant contributions of chance” But not to worry: “That vision of the creative process still apparently left a role for God as Lawgiver, but this gave way in turn to the Newtonian role of Lawfinder, which also evaporated, as we have recently seen, leaving behind no Intelligent  Agency in the process at all.” Dennett finds comfort in heartless fate: “What is left is what the process, shuffling through eternity, mindlessly finds (when it finds anything): a timeless Platonic possibility of order. That is, indeed, a thing of beauty as mathematicians are forever exclaiming, but it is not itself something intelligent, but wonder of wonders, something intelligible.” Now Dennett does not wish us to conclude that he is blind to beauty sacredness, wonder, affirmation. He praises Benedict Spinoza, who “in the seventeenth century, identified God and Nature, arguing that scientific research was the true path of theology.” Later, he asks: “Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. The world is sacred.”

On these passages from Dennett, Professor Barr pens some trenchant words:

“Dennett here makes two claims. First he claims that Newton replaced the idea of a Lawgiver. That is nonsense. In physics — and that is what he is talking about — all explanations account for orderliness by appealing to a more comprehensive and more beautiful and more profound mathematical orderliness at a deeper level of nature. For example, Newton explained the wonderful laws discovered by Kepler, but only by showing that they followed from even more wonderful laws. It is Laws all the way down! And indeed it is more and more beautiful laws all the way down. If anything, the discoveries of Newton and his successors strengthen the case for a Lawgiver. That was Newton’s own view It was the view of Faraday and Maxwell, the two greatest physicists of the 19th century, who were also devout Christians.”

Dennett’s second point is that “recent” developments have even done away with any idea of lawfulness in nature. Here he is grossly misunderstanding what he has heard about the so — called “multiverse” idea, in which the universe randomly picks laws in different parts of the universe (hence Dennett’s “process, mindlessly finds”). But if he knew what he was talking about, he would know that the multiverse idea if it is true (and at the moment it is speculation) is based on the assumption that deep down the whole universe shares some ultimate set of laws. It does not get away from lawfulness.”

A Naïve Alternative
A completely naïve person might think that if something looks designed, and acts designed, and seduces the inquiring mind by the intricate ways in which it is designed, then it rather emphatically seems to he designed. Such a person might also be unable to imagine the millions upon millions of years, the “eons,” and the alternate universes, that the atheist biologist continually postulates in order to maintain his belief in a designer-less design. A simple person might even wonder if the existing evidence gives the present universe anything like enough. “eons” to produce randomly all that evolutionists attribute to time alone. Hearing the atheist’s interpretation of the data, the naïve person might imagine that “evolution” rests on a rather mystical process, whose whole range nobody ever sees because it happens over so many eons that no records exist, or in such conjectured alternative universes as perhaps never really happened. These long lengths of time — almost like eternity — and these alternative universes, never subject to empirical testing, require a lot of faith. To believe in an intelligent, conscious, purposeful Designer—”Artist” is better — seems far cleaner, far closer to what science actually shows us. Ockham’s razor.

True enough, the designs this Artist displays are marked by probabilities, not necessities, by failures as as well as

evils and sufferings as well as by joys and delights. In fact, Christianity actually dares to propose that the key to the design really intended by the Artist is the cross on which Jesus is crucified — the just man, the innocent man, made to suffer terribly just as, long before, the prophets of Judaism had suffered and been rejected. The cross is the key that fits into a universe of many contingencies, accidents, sufferings, evils, and heartaches, and opens up the door to understanding. So this is what it all means!

Come Follow Me
It is also an appeal to our liberty: “Come follow me’ Jesus invites all. He gives us free choice. If you so choose, suffer with me. on your own cross (each of us is sent plenty of crosses down the years). One picks up one’s cross not for the sake of suffering, which would be masochistic, but for the sake of transforming suffering into divine love, which the accepting of such suffering (Dostoyevsky’s “humble charity”) unlocks.

It is not hard to sympathize with atheists who find abundant reasons, on many levels, to turn away from Jesus. Many humans have done so. Possibly a large majority What is harder to sympathize with is the oversimplified image of a bumbling naïf, which atheists fantasize, whose rosy purposes are undercut by evil, failure, contingency chance, the absurdities of human life, and by all the cruelties of that “nature red in tooth and claw,” in which so many animals are torn apart by other animals. A more sophisticated image of the Artist should emerge from the awful and bloody realities believers see around them, not the schoolboy rationalism of their teenage years.

If you do not believe in the Lord of the Absurd, contemplate what He allowed to be done to His only Son, on the cross. The Artist God in whom Christians believe is this Lord of the Absurd, this Lord of the suffering Son of God, on the bloody gibbet:

Jews, too, by their own path; reflecting on the long historical sufferings of the Jewish people, know that their God is no Pollyanna, no Pretty Boy, no Promiser of rose gardens. He made the earth to be a place of trial.

Then again, two further points. First, belief in the Lord of the Absurd so thoroughly squares with human experience and with the findings of science (“chaos” theory and all the rest) that it frees the mind to confront with equanimity both the “chance” and “directionless-ness” and the radiant intelligibility in the structure of the universe. Combining both, the Jewish/Christian faith in an intelligent and kind Creator goes more directly to the heart of what scientists and mathematicians actually experience. (We must return to this point.)

But beyond that, belief in the Lord of the Absurd also answers deeper questions in the human mind, which science is not equipped to understand. Atheist writers describe the designer god of their imagination as if he were intended as a deus ex machina, some sort of hypothesis to explain what makes things work. Thus, when they show step-by-step that such a god is not needed to explain this, or that, and not even that other matter, they stop questioning. They have the (scientific) answers they need.

Okay, no deus ex machina exists. God is not a scientific hypothesis. Agreed. We have stipulated that. The biblical God is not a deus ex machina to bail out temporarily puzzled scientists. He is not even reachable by scientific inquiry. Science is on the wrong wavelength.

The Circularity Of Neo-Darwinism
Christoph Schönborn denounced “neo.-Darwjnjsm” in the New York Times, he was understood to be attacking a scientific theory, and this mistaken impression caused shock waves that were unnecessary. This inflamed usage runs counter to the definitions most dictionaries have accepted across many decades. Believers cannot allow atheists to Own the word “Darwinjsm.” Darwinist theory is widely viewed as an enormous accomplishment and a pillar of modern science. For believers to lock themselves into a rhetorical stance against “Darwinism” is wholly unwise.

Though many students of the humanities, accustomed to terms such as “neo-Platonism” “neo-Thomism” and “neo-Kantianism make the mistake of interpreting “neo-Darwinism” as a philosophical reference, we should acknowledge that the term is most properly understood as “the synthesis of Darwinist theory of natural selection with modern genetics.”

If one assumes there is no God, no design, and no future plan in the structure of the universe, as Dennett and the others do, then one needs two new principles for the impressive dynamism, the movement, the change we see around us. First, what makes things go? Second, what makes progress happen? That is, what makes evolution tilt upward? “Natural selection” satisfies both needs.

Moreover there is a very neat offset: If there is natural selection, there is no God. And if there is a God, then natural selection is one of the possible ways through which He might have organized world process.

But these two propositions are not symmetrical. The first one does away with God, on account of natural selection. But the second keeps both God and natural selection.

Well, partisans of the first proposition might say: If we have natural selection we don’t need God. “Do not multiply entities without necessity”

To which the riposte might be: At its deepest level, partisans of the atheist position who rely on Ockham are assuming a very high degree of intelligence at work in the world, economical, tending toward elegant simplicity. How do they explain this assumption? Ockham’s razor is based on it.

On a less profound level, another riposte is possible: Such partisans seem to imagine that the terms “God” and “natural selection” are two different “explanations” for the same thing. Thus, the rule of Ockham’s razor says that one of them must go. But while natural selection may articulate the method by which species make themselves more fit and improve their capacities, and so forth, the human mind still requires an answer to the question, But what kind of intelligence and dynamism might have implanted “natural selection” as a law of nature, at the very beginnings of biological life? Did the law of natural selection — pop! — just suddenly appear?

Then, too, where do partisans of “natural selection” come up with the loaded term “the fittest”? Such a term requires an energizing source of intelligence and dynamism that puts in place an absolute standard, by which given states of development are adjudged progressive or regressive, backward or avant-garde, worse or better. Without such a standard, there is no non-tautological way to separate what is “more fit” or “fittest” from “whatever happens to be.” On its own terms, natural selection has a fatal ambiguity within it. It seems to display circularity in Darwin’s thought. If X is “fittest.”  X is more likely to “survive.” If X survives, that shows that X was “the fittest” among competitors. Fittest = survivors. Circularity?

Besides, is it true in our own experience that the finest human beings we have known outlive the thugs that prosper among us? That seemed not to happen in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany. The morally good were often put to painful death, while the malicious prospered.

So what does “survival” prove about the moral good? “Fittest” depends upon “fittest for what”? And mere survival is not a very high moral standard.

But this point about what makes individuals “fit” can also be made about species as a whole. There may be many other living creatures on this earth more “fit” to survive than human beings. Maybe the cockroaches. If humans disappear from earth, it is unlikely that all life will cease.

The Disjunction Between The Phenomenon Of Human Life And The Other Parts Of The Universe
These are just a handful of observations that call for work beyond the Darwinist account of human life and its origins. To further examine its claims, let us take some instruction from a very bright Australian philosopher, Dr. David Stove. Professor Stove, an atheist, found no difficulty in accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution for galaxies, plants, and animals. But as regards human beings, Professor Stove found that the theory of natural selection based upon brutal competition, in which only the few fittest survive, utterly fails to pass the test of what he sees with his own eyes. Professor Stove, in his penetrating analysis Darwinian Fairytales, calls this mistake “Darwin’s dilemma,” his failure, his insupportable proposition.

No other book on Darwin I had earlier read woke me up so sharply as Professor Stove’s. I had not fully grasped, in the detail he lays out through eleven tightly argued chapters, the disjunction between the phenomenon of human life and the other parts of the universe. Apes don’t devote years to educating their young. Chimpanzees do not build medical clinics. Wrens don’t become doctors. Alligators have not formed schools of monks to copy painstakingly from fragile, ancient scrolls. Even eagles do not inspire a hundred thousand nuns to lovingly care for eaglets suffering from incurable disease. Bears do not form modern states and organize into great bureaucracies to hand out benefits to the needy, to help the vulnerable survive and even prosper, or to ease the sufferings of the poor or down on their luck. Frogs do not form hospitals to ease the pain and suffering of their tadpoles and elderly. It seems highly unlikely that the lions of the world would care, without any discrimination whatever, for lambs and other species not their own. The problem with animal rights, after all, is getting the animals to respect them.

By contrast, perhaps a third of the human race is caring for the weak and the down-and-out either through government services or nonpublic institutions — and sometimes by volunteering on their own. Far from human life being a harsh, dog-eat-dog struggle for survival, in which only a few survive, enormous human energies are expended through sympathy for the needy, keeping many from perishing who otherwise would. Such care also tends lovingly to the feeble-minded, the delinquent, the alcoholic, and many others whom strict Darwinism would identify for weeding out, for the sake of a healthier gene pool.

Not even Dawkins and Harris can bring themselves to turn their backs on the suffering. They are living dis-proofs of a significant part of Darwin’s conception of man. Perhaps not the most heroic dis-proofs, but dis-proofs nonetheless.

To a considerable extent, then, one might argue that contemporary atheists — even those who most viscerally hate Judaism and Christianity –have nevertheless absorbed from the culture in which they live and move and have their being the moral sentiments of Deuteronomy, the Gospel of Matthew, and even Adam Smith about loving their neighbors (even strangers) as themselves. Recall Smith’s emphasis upon the sentiment of “sympathy”:

“And hence it is, that to feel much for others, and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent, affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature; and can alone produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole grace and propriety.”

When the happiness or misery of others depends in any respect. upon our conduct, we dare not, as self-love might suggest to us, prefer the interest of one to that of many. The man within immediately calls to us, that we value ourselves too much and other people too little, and that, by doing so, we render ourselves the proper object of the contempt and indignation of our brethren.

Confronted with this radical error in Darwin’s incautious sweeping of human beings into a net better woven to catch stars, grasses, flowers, serpents, grasshoppers, sparrows, bass, salmon, and all other nonhuman animals from rabbits to rhinoceri, the spontaneous reaction of Darwjnists is to voice horror at a kind of outrage committed against their master. “This is terrible. This verges on libel!” When they actually get to defending the proposition that the Darwinian thesis about humans holds true, Stove has discovered through many years of experience in debate, they usually try one of three gambits.

The first defense is “Yes, of course, people today have learned how to associate, cooperate, and take care of each other. But this is only after many centuries spent living in caves as Neanderthals, brandishing clubs Brutal competition used to exist Only recently has human life been made more caring and considerate — and atheistic science must take much credit for that”

But a theory explaining everything cannot be salvaged by taking refuge in such an exceptional twist at a certain point in time Surely, the fundamental theory needs a quite vital amendment to account for the human tendency to overcome primitive Darwinism, a Darwinism valid only for cavemen (if even that part of Darwinism is true) At this point, it appears that Judaism and Christianity offer a far more nuanced theory about the good and evil in man’s nature than Darwin did, at least at first.

The second defense is the “iron fist in a velvet glove” defense Well, it may look like human life is civilized and well-mannered, as in the Victorian era, but if you step outside the drawing room you will see that in industrial circles there really was “social Darwinism”– it was dog-eat-dog, a jungle out there. And if you visit the chancelleries of Europe, you will see Realpolitik mapped out as if humans were pure self-interest, who use ideals as smoke screens, and whose placid public surface masks plots, counterplots, intrigue, espionage, arms races, and cleverly disguised imperial exercises.

Yet this defense, too, essentially admits that the Darwinist account is partial and incomplete. So far are its darker impulses from being the whole story that they must operate only by subterfuge, as subtext within a larger paradigm. Is the human longing to show compassion and to give loving care to those who suffer actually explained by Darwin, or is it far too lightly brushed aside, in order to keep simple and clean the background theory for which Darwin has real affection? A theory that brushes aside facts that loom so gigantic is in need of fairly dramatic modification.

The third defense is a softer one — too soft either to deny the charge or to modify the theory. It usually goes something like this, with an introductory wave of the hand: “Oh yes, that’s true of course, but that undercurrent of dog-eat-dog is really fundamental in human life. And except for humans, it’s universal. So let’s not quarrel over the details.”

But these are “details” only on the supposition that there is no God, no Judaism, no Christianity, no ethical humanism. The “soft defense” still suggests that humans should abruptly dismiss any search for “meaning.” They should set aside any hope of making sense of their capacities for goodness, compassion, and truth. When it’s over, it’s over, just as it is for dead chipmunks.

But this defense actually rests on an unscientific assumption that atheism accurately describes the human predicament. Whether there is a God or not falls beyond the range of science. If something more than atheism predicts is going on in humans who show compassion, practice justice, and seek truth, then as a theory of human existence Darwinism quite simply, and dramatically, fails. For the rest of nature, Darwin’s thesis may provide the best explanation yet available for the inner dynamic of evolution. For human beings, it leaves too much out to satisfy the inquiring mind rooted in a multitude of daily experiences of care and compassion, some secular, some religious. How can something so central be waved aside, purely to save a flawed theory?

Three Moral Objections To Darwinism
There are three moral objections to Darwinism, when it is presented as an alternative to traditional ethical systems based upon reason, common sense, and careful reflection on Jewish and Christian revelation. The first objection is based upon the horrors unleashed by the eugenics movement of the period 1896-1945, first supported by many of the most accomplished and socially esteemed elites of New York and Boston, and then so horribly abused by Adolf Hitler.

The second objection opposes the rationale for the First World War presented by the German General Staff, which argued that the strongest races had a moral duty to supplant the weaker ones, in order to further a healthier natural selection of the fittest. A duty imposed, no less, by Darwinian natural law.

The third objection confronts the effect upon young and imbalanced minds of being taught to admire atheism, nihilism, and natural selection. Two such were Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the brutal young murderers in Chicago in 1924. This objection was raised by Clarence Darrow, in his defense of these tragic youngsters against capital punishment, on the grounds that their minds had been unfairly poisoned by readings assigned them at the University of Chicago.

The point of these objections is that, if Darwin’s theory of natural selection were applicable to humans as to the other animals, in order to weed out the helpless weak, nothing would be morally wrong with the use of eugenics. Nor would anything be wrong with a strong nation’s practice of justifying by the law of natural selection the depredations it inflicts upon weaker nations. Nor would anything be wrong in the dreadful, murderous conclusions drawn by Leopold and Loeb from the texts they had been assigned to study But the spontaneous sentiments of the human heart, once the relevant information is before it, cry out that these are evils to be opposed. These evil impulses are not “natural” duties to be obeyed. Whatever its strength in other areas, something is seriously wrong with an unmodified Darwinian social theory about human beings.

Pressing on, we find that many of our most irrepressible inquiries push beyond the bounds of science: Why do human beings, since it is said to be so futile a longing, nonetheless long for eternal life? Why is atheism so hard to live by, since spontaneously even the atheist heart on some surprising occasions involuntarily breaks out with “Oh! Thank God!”? Jean-Paul Sartre candidly confessed in The Words how hard it was to remove all religious instincts from his life.

Again, has nature instilled religious aspirations, beliefs, and longings in us only in order to frustrate them? Their power in us makes a large majority of humans take them as evidence of a dimension of existence about which science, at least so far, is in denial.

Why do we, knowing well our private, deeply hidden betrayals of our own deepest principles—our honesty our courage — still long for forgiveness and for a fresh, clean start? Why are our consciences, even under torture, so insistent on not becoming complicit in the lies our torturers demand that we confess? Why does fidelity under duress become so supremely important, even under threat to our very lives and (since some tortures are intended to maim us) to our future health? To what — to what vagrant impulse, to what fleeting whim, to what law of nature — are we trying to remain faithful? And why?

Why are atheists in the same prisons sometimes so brave, so forthright, so courageous, in standing up to torment? What is it in them that makes truth seem so important, when their fidelity to it does not in fact help them to survive but, on the contrary, threatens to overwhelm and to destroy them?…


Jack Miles’ Literary Character of Jesus by James Wood

September 22, 2010


Jack Miles, Very Californian


James Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007. He was the chief literary critic at the Guardian, in London, from 1992 to 1995, and a senior editor at The New Republic from 1995 to 2007. His critical essays have been collected in two volumes, “The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief” (1999) and “The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel” (2004), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He writes here on the literary interpretation of the bible, specifically a review of Jack Miles book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

Jack Miles is Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies with the University of California at Irvine and Senior Fellow for Religious Affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other publications.  His book GOD: A Biography won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. His book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God led to his being named a MacArthur Fellow for the years 2003-2007.

It is unfortunate that this kind of thinking appears to be the province of the atheist mindset. It needn’t be. I find it provocative but it can provoke you to reflect more deeply on your faith. Chesterton has shown us that the paradox can lead us to view both sides of an apparent insoluble condition from a strange point of resolution. Let the literary show you a biblical narrative “embossed with pattern, allusion, and symbol.” It can be great food for thought and for your growing faith.

One of the many peculiarities of religion is that, like the Hoover-vacuum salesman and his celebrated packet of dirt, it offers to solve problems that it created in the first place. Take the “problem” of evil. In a world not created by God, the fact that people suffer must merely take its part in a team of other inexplicables. But in a world created by God evil must have been created, too — either by God or by a force opposed to God. Evil becomes a problem, an affront to God, which is “solved” only by our cleaving more strongly to God, who is goodness. In a sense, God is then what Cardinal Newman called the Catholic Church: “a great remedy for a great evil.”

But is evil the problem, or God? This is the dark question that crouches blasphemously in the Bible — in the punishment of Adam and Eve for committing a sin that only God himself could have made possible, in the divine injunction that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, in the lamentations of the Psalmist and Job, and on into the New Testament, culminating in Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

The Bible is an anthology of human incomprehension. God made his covenant with Abraham, but then, over the next couple of thousand years, his chosen people found themselves slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon, and colonized subjects in their own lands under Roman occupation. The Messiah, the Jewish leader who prophets said would conquer all foreign nations and subject them to Israel’s sovereignty, had conspicuously failed to appear.

The most inventive “solution” to the failure of the old covenant is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the son of God who comes from God and who is God, who takes upon himself the sins of the world, and who allows himself to be sacrificed, thereby cleansing the world of its sin. Christ is the great cure for a great sickness. In Christian doctrine, particularly in the visions of Paul and John, Jesus is God made briefly human (this is called the Incarnation), and he is the announcement of a new covenant, not with Israel alone but with the whole earth. For Paul, Jesus was the second Adam, the corrector of Adam’s original sin: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

So Jack Miles is quite right, in his new book, “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” (Knopf; $26.95), to suggest, a little blasphemously, that the story of the New Testament is the story of a self-rescue — a rescue by God from a calamity that God had created. God had cursed his own creation in Eden, after Adam’s sin, and was now lifting that curse, or, at least, allowing for the possibility of remission.

“The world is a great crime, and someone must be made to pay for it,” Miles writes. “Mythologically read, the New Testament is the story of how someone, the right someone, does pay for it. . . . In its broadest outlines, the story of the Bible is the story of how God first turned his blessings of fertility and dominion into curses and then turned his curses back into blessings.”

And, as Miles argues, this new covenant represented a shocking rupture. Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that most Jews expected. He was not a military leader. He claimed to be not merely an agent of God but the son of God, and even God made flesh (a ferociously un-Jewish idea). He spoke not of an imminent victory and a realizable kingdom but, riddlingly, of a vague immaterial salvation, of the need to be born again “of water and of the spirit.” In place of Israel’s victory over its enemies, he spoke of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Deuteronomy had promised that “the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail,” but Jesus promised that the first shall be last and the last first. And, most scandalously, this Messiah went willingly to be killed by the Roman authorities, speaking of himself as the sacrifice, the world’s sacrificial lamb.

All this, though familiar to Christians, is given lucid force in Miles’s careful retrieval, in which he combingly takes us through the chief astonishments of Jesus’ life, largely as they are recounted in the Gospel of John. Some commentators are so singly fixated on the New Testament that they make the Bible seem like a double bed that has been slept in on only one side. Miles, a former Jesuit with considerable expertise in the Biblical languages, lies on both sides, constantly reverting to the Old Testament, rightly noting the many ways in which the New Testament alludes to, builds on, and — the Christian claim — supersedes its Scriptures.

But Miles reads the Gospels in a peculiar manner. His previous book, “God: A Biography,” dealt with God, in Miles’s words, “as — and only as — the protagonist of a classic of world literature.” His new book continues that literary biography into the New Testament. Miles is not interested in Jesus as the object of religious belief or as the quarry of historical research. For him, Jesus is a “literary character” who also happens to be God incarnate. He wants to read Jesus as God, Part II.

Literary critique of the Bible has been one of the most fruitful developments in criticism over the past twenty years. The work of writers like David Damrosch, Robert Alter, Frank Kermode, and Gabriel Josipovici has expanded our sense of the Scriptures as pieces of literature, as narratives embossed with pattern, allusion, and symbol.

A literary analysis of Genesis has no interest in deciding either the religious or the historical authority of the text. It wants to see how it works as a piece of writing, on the proper assumption that in literature all effects are literary ones (that is, they are created by writers), and that even religious texts create religious effects through literary means.

This kind of criticism has sometimes set itself against historical Bible scholarship, though it has often been deeply indebted to it. Historical criticism is interested in the historical actualities of the Biblical world, and is keen to discover what we can know about who wrote what, and when. Such scholars do not deny the existence of literary artifice, but they want to explain its origins rather than explore its means. Contradictions in the character of God, say, might be explained by reference to the different human authors of the Bible, as far as scholarship has been able to ascertain the facts. But literary analysis is interested in how those contradictions are made by writers to work in the text.

Jack Miles’s criticism, though literary, differs from the familiar literary methods. Miles has little interest in how a literary character is constructed; he is merely grateful that it exists. Surveying the Bible’s contradictory representations of God, Miles sees not a variety of contradictory authors but the single biography of a God who is himself contradictory. He is fond of what used to be called “character criticism”; he reads God and Jesus as if they were fictional creations with real lives off the page. He is like the critic who discusses Dickens’s characters as if they were real human beings. (Does Pip live happily ever after?) Such a way of reading does not, despite its avowed ambitions, really attend to a literary character as a literary character but converts him out of literature and makes him a real human being, since it tends to supply motive where the text fails to.

Years ago, the Shakespeare scholar L. C. Knights mocked the character criticism of A. C. Bradley and others, in an essay entitled “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Miles, in his previous book, announced that he was on Bradley’s side against Knights, and that it was time for Biblical-character criticism: “Unless the viewer of ‘Hamlet’ can believe that Hamlet was born and will die, unless the viewer’s imagination is carried offstage into the life for which there is no direct evidence onstage, the play dies with its protagonist. A character understood to have no life offstage can have no life onstage. And so it is also with God as the protagonist of the Bible.”

The immediate effect of Miles’s decision to read Jesus “biographically” as God incarnate is that Jesus is furnished with a two-thousand-year past, an elephantine memory, and a lot of explaining to do. As Miles comments, if Jesus is God, then “God’s earlier words were Jesus’s words as well.” Suddenly, in Miles’s hands, the novelty of Jesus’ covenant becomes even greater. If Jesus was really God, then God died on the cross (or, indeed, committed suicide).

If Jesus was really God, then God did not suffer merely as a father when his son hung on the cross but suffered himself. It also means that, after two thousand years, God changed his mind, fiddled with his essence, and abandoned his old vengeful and jealous habits in place of a new gentleness, pacifism, and universalism. “If we grant that Jesus is God Incarnate, then we must grant as well that he has the right to announce a deep change in God — which is to say, in himself — without quite calling the change by that name and without otherwise troubling to explain it,” Miles writes.

Why would God have changed his mind? According to Miles, because he had failed: his covenant lapsed because he had been unable to defeat his enemies. God “knew he should have stopped Rome,” Miles says. “He knew he had not done so.” Within the terms by which, starting at his victory over Pharaoh, God himself has defined his divinity, “he has failed. Unless some adjustment of those terms can be made, then he cannot continue to be God. The adjustment he makes, his own disarmament, entails an expansion of membership in his covenant.

But he brings about this expansion not, first, out of love for Gentiles, much less out of hatred for the Jews, but, rather, to reconstitute his own identity.” It is a technique of diplomatic jujitsu: “Instead of baldly declaring that he is unable to defeat his enemies, God may declare that he has no enemies.” Hence God’s emphasis on loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, and his decision to become the God of all, not the jealous potentate of Israel alone.

There is real interest in Miles’s story, in which God essentially apologizes for making a hash of things and promises to do better next time. And yet Miles’s habit of writing about God as if he were a human being — who not only failed but “must” admit this failure, who has to reconstitute his “identity,” who is in danger of ending his “storied career,” and so on — subverts his book’s own argument. Miles says that he wants to take Jesus “seriously as God Incarnate,” but how serious can Jesus’ divinity be if God is only human? At that point, why bother to go along with the notion of the Incarnation in the first place?

To be sure, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament often describe God in human terms, as jealous, vengeful, irrational, lonely, and so on — at one point, Miles calls God “strangely and painfully friendless.” But it is one thing to acknowledge the Bible’s helpless anthropomorphism — whereby any human being who tells stories about God will inevitably make God patchily in man’s image — and another to volunteer one’s own extra anthropomorphism, whereby God is thoroughly humanized; one thing, in other words, to see God in human terms and another to make him human. Miles’s inventively psychological language, as it wends its way through his book, imagines a God who shares the attributes of his people, is limited in power, is ultimately knowable, and has an admirable tendency to apologize. In short, he is the opposite of the God worshipped and feared by Israel in the Hebrew Bible — a work that, Robert Alter rightly warns, bristles with “forces that can be neither grasped nor controlled by humankind.” Miles’s God is too graspable and too controllable.

More to the point, although Jesus is a “literary character” in the sense that the Gospel writers represented and shaped his life on the page, he was not conceived by those writers as a literary character. The same goes for God. He may well be a human construction, but he was not constructed by the writers of the Scriptures as a human construction. He was constructed as the opposite of a human construction. The danger of Miles’s approach is obvious enough: too often in his book, the reader has the sense that Jesus is being treated as a fictional creation whom no human being actually created.

When describing Jesus’ nativity, Miles has many shrewd things to say about the symbolism of our encountering the Messiah as a baby in a manger. The story of how Mary and Joseph, returning to their home town in obedience to Caesar Augustus’ census, spent the night in a stable, where the baby Jesus was born, while clearly a literary invention, enhances the pathos and appeal of the Messiah. Miles notes a pattern: “Jesus’s involuntary defenselessness at the beginning of his life mirrors and anticipates his voluntary defenselessness at its end.” This is excellent, and it is therefore a pity that Miles also writes, “When God makes Mary and Joseph ciphers in the census of Caesar Augustus, he emphasizes their helplessness — and the helplessness of his own infant self.” Suddenly, God has become the Gospel writer, which is, to say the least, an oddly unliterary way to discuss a narrative created by people.

Miles’s lack of interest in the actual Gospel writers matters, because it is not always clear that the Gospel writers believed what Miles takes as the founding premise of his book — that Jesus was God incarnate. Miles gets around this problem by relying predominantly on the Gospel of John, which is the Gospel most intoxicated by the idea of incarnation. Whereas in Matthew and Mark Jesus sometimes suggests that he is subordinate to God, and may not always know God’s mind, in John Jesus astoundingly claims oneness with God — “I and my Father are one.” But, if Miles relies largely on only one Gospel, how can he claim that he is treating the New Testament as a unified literary text?

Miles’s book is perhaps less a literary critique than a theologico-literary retelling, even a meditation on the problem of evil. The philosopher Josiah Royce, whom Miles does not mention, labored at a theodicy — the formal term for the justification of God’s tolerance of evil — holding that when we suffer God suffers, too. Why would God suffer? Because, Royce replied, suffering completes a soul, and without suffering God’s life could not be perfected: “It is logically necessary that the Captain of your salvation should be perfect through suffering.”

Royce, cheerfully treating God as if he were human, sounds somewhat like Miles. Minus Royce’s anthropomorphism, this notion — that God suffered on the cross and thus suffers with us now when we suffer — has become commonplace in contemporary theodicy. Such a notion does not solve the problem of evil, because it does not absolve God of cruelty (after all, just because God suffers with us is no reason that we should also suffer); and because it seems to limit God’s power (God, in this scheme, seems incapable of not suffering). It is only a figure, a picture, a way of seeing. And, as a way of seeing, Miles’s book has great power and depth.

Though he does not try to solve the problem of evil, his book gives us, with horrid clarity, the vision of a culpable, guilty, and finally atoning God, who kills himself on the cross as Jesus Christ, in a botched attempt to cleanse the world of its sins. That the evil world we live in has clearly not been so cleansed may be evidence not that Jesus was not the Messiah but that there can be no Messiah, for the world cannot be cleansed. Pressing to its logical end the offense of Jesus’ great rupture, Miles conveys the paradox inherent in the idea of Messianism itself.

On the one hand, the rupture that Jesus enacted threatens the continuity whereby he could be what he claimed to be, the Son of God — God Extended. But without some kind of rupture there can be no Messiah, for a God who simply continues to be himself has no need of Messianic intervention. Messianism is the idea of God Interrupted; and so Messianism is necessarily a kind of blasphemy. Jesus was that blasphemy —  a blasphemy created, of course, by God himself.


Reading Selections From Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Writings by Robert Ellsberg (Editor)

September 21, 2010

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O Connor (1925-1964) is widely regarded as one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. Only in 1979, however, with the publication of her collected letters, could the public fully see the depth of her personal faith and her wisdom as a spiritual guide. Drawing from all her work Robert Ellsberg has put together an anthology  that highlights as never before O Connor s distinctive voice as a spiritual writer, covering such topics as Christian Realism, the Church, the relation between faith and art, sin and grace, and the role of suffering in the life of a Christian. Three previous readings from the same anthology I had posted before. Some reading selections follow:

I Am Chary Of Using The Word Love
I don’t think as you seem to suppose that to be a true Christian you believe that mutual interdependence is a conceit. This is far from Catholic doctrine; in fact it strikes me as highly Protestant, a sort of justification by faith. God became not only a man but Man. This is a mystery of the Redemption and our salvation is worked out on earth according as we love one another, see Christ in one another, etc., by works. This is one reason I am chary of using the word, love, loosely. I prefer to use it in its practical forms, such as prayer, almsgiving, visiting the sick and burying the dead and so forth….

Christian Faith Sharpens The Eye For The Grotesque, The Perverse, And The Unacceptable
In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it.  I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery…

My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. In some cases, these writers may be unconsciously infected with the Manichean spirit of the times and suffer the much–discussed distinction between sensibility and belief, but I think that more often the reason for this attention to the perverse is the difference between their beliefs and the beliefs of their audience. Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

St Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage passed him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.

Two Devils
There is a difference between our two devils. My Devil has a name, a history and a definite plan. His name is Lucifer, he’s a fallen angel, his sin is pride, and his aim is the destruction of the Divine plan. Now I judge that your Devil is co-equal to God, not his creature, that pride is his virtue, not his sin; and that his aim is not to destroy the Divine plan because there isn’t any Divine plan to destroy. My Devil is objective and yours is subjective. You say one becomes “evil” when one leaves the herd; I say that depends entirely on what the herd is doing.
The herd has been known to be right in which case the one who leaves it is doing evil. When the herd is wrong, the one who leaves it is not doing evil but the right thing. If I remember rightly, you put that word, evil in quotation marks which means the standards you judge it by there are relative; in fact you would be looking at it there with the eyes of the herd.

A Generation Of Wingless Chickens
The notice in the New Yorker was not only moronic, it was unsigned. It was a case in which it is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.

The Return Of Modern People To A Sense Of The Holy Spirit
I suppose what bothers us so much about writing about the return of modern people to a sense of the Holy Spirit is that the religious sense seems to be bred out of them in the kind of society we’ve lived in since the 19th century. And its bred out of them double quick now by the religious substitutes for religion. There’s nowhere to latch on to, in the characters, or the audience. If there were in the public just a slight sense of ordinary theology (much less crisis theology), if they only believed at least that God has the power to do certain things.

There is no sense of the power of God that could produce the Incarnation and the Resurrection. They are so busy explaining away the virgin birth and such things, reducing everything to human proportions that in time they lose even the sense of the human itself, what they were aiming to reduce everything to. As for fiction, the meaning of a piece of fiction only begins where everything psychological and sociological has been explained.

The South Vs The Liberal Approach
The notion of the perfectibility for man came about at the time of Enlightenment in the 18th century. This is what the South has traditionally opposed. “How far we have fallen” means the fall of Adam, the fall from innocence, from sanctifying grace. The South, in other words, still believes that man has fallen and that he is only perfectible by God’s grace, not by his own unaided efforts. The Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own efforts. Therefore evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc, and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up. Judgment is out of place because man is not responsible. Of course there are degrees of adherence to this, all sorts of mixtures, but it is the direction the modern heads toward. Some syntax…

The Reaches Of Reality
St Augustine wrote that the things of the world pour forth from God in a double way: intellectually into the minds of the angels and physically into the world of things. To the person who believes this—as the western world did up until a few centuries ago – this physical, sensible world is good because it proceeds from a divine source. The artist usually knows this by instinct; his senses, which are used to penetrating the concrete, tell him so. When Conrad said that his aim as an artist was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe, he was speaking with the novelist’s surest instinct. The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality. This in no way hinders his perceptions of evil but rather sharpens it, for only when the natural world is seen as good does evil become intelligible as a destructive force and necessary result of our freedom.
For the last few centuries we have lived in a world which has been increasingly convinced that the reaches of reality end very close to the surface, that there is no ultimate divine source, that the things of the world do not pour forth from God in a double way, or at all. For nearly two centuries the popular spirit of each succeeding generation has tended more and more to the view that the mysteries of life will eventually fall before the mind of man. Many modern novelists have been more concerned with the processes of consciousness than with the objective world outside the mind. In twentieth century fiction it increasingly happens that a meaningless, absurd world impinges upon the sacred consciousness of the author or character; author and character seldom now go out to explore and penetrate a world in which the sacred is reflected.

Types Of Modern Man
We live in an unbelieving age but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual, There is one type of modern man who recognizes spirit in himself and who fails to recognize a being outside himself whom he can adore as Creator and Lord; consequently he has become his own ultimate concern…

There is another type of modern man who recognizes a divine being not himself, but who does not believe that this being can be known analogically or defined dogmatically or received sacramentally…

And there is another type of modern man who can neither believe nor contain himself in unbelief and who searches desperately, feeling about in all experience for the lost God.

At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily. The fictions which celebrates this last state will be the least likely to transcend its limitation, for when the religious need is banished successfully, it usually atrophies, even in the novelist. The sense of mystery vanishes. A kind of reverse evolution takes place, and the whole range of feeling is dulled.

The searchers are another matter. Pascal wrote in his notebook, “If I had not known you, I would not have found you.” These unbelieving searchers have their effect even upon those of us who do believe. We begin to examine our own religious notions, to sound them for genuineness, to purify them in the heat of our unbelieving neighbor’s anguish. What Christian novelist would compare his concern to Camus? We have to look in much of the fiction of our time for a kind of sub-religion which expresses its ultimate concern in images that have not yet broken through to show any recognition of a God who has revealed himself…

The Maximum Amount Of Seriousness Admits The Maximum Amount Of Comedy
Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself, The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, a total experience of human nature at any time.

For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage, he sees it not as a sickness or an accident of the environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future. Either one is serious about salvation or one is not.

And it is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy. Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe. One reason a great deal of our contemporary fictions is humorless is because so many of these writers are relativists and have to be continually justifying the actions of their characters on a sliding scale of values.

Great Religious Fiction
I don’t believe we will have great religious fiction until we have again that happy combination of believing artist and believing society. Until that time, the novelist will have to do the best he can in travail with the world he has. He may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by. This is a modest achievement, but perhaps a necessary one.

The Church
I think the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is is that it is somehow the body of Christ and on this we are fed.

If I Were Not A Catholic
I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.

Grace to the Catholic way of thinking can and does use as its medium the imperfect, purely human, and even hypocritical. Cutting yourself off from Grace is a very decided matter, requiring a real choice, act of will, and affecting the very ground of the soul….This notion that grace is healing omits the fact that before it heals, it cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring.

Reconciliation in The Artificial Nigger
Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to anyone and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was to monstrous for him to claim as his own and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.

The Reasons For The Use Of So Much Violence
Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violences which precede and follow them. The devil’s greatest vile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

The Setting Of Modern Fiction
The setting in which most modern fiction takes place is exactly a setting in which nothing is so little felt to be true as the reality of a faith in Christ…Fiction may deal with faith implicitly but explicitly it deals only with faith-in-a-person, or persons . What must be unquestionable is what is implicitly implied as he author’s attitude, and to do this the writer has to succeed in making the divinity of Christ seem consistent with the structure of all reality. This has got be got across implicitly in spite of a world that doesn’t feel it , in spite of characters who don’t live it.


Reading Selection from “And Now I See” by Fr. Robert Barron

September 20, 2010


Fr. Robert Barron


One of the things I loved about Fr. Barron’s “And Now I See” is the introduction to a new way of seeing. He strips away some of the mistaken language of our current religious (faith) dialogue and reinstitutes the Greek. Words like” repent,” “believe,” “soul” and “spirit” become infused with new meaning when we contrast them with “metanoia,” “pisteuete,” “magna anima,” and “pusilla anima.” Read on to see what I mean…

Follow Not Worship
Now the Gospel writers agree that the Kingdom of God, the enfleshment of the divine life in human form, the Incarnation, is not something to be admired from the outside, but rather an energy in which to participate. This is, tragically, one of the most overlooked dimensions of Christian thought and experience. If we open our eyes and see the light, we too often stop at the point of admiration and worship, lost in wonder at the strange work that God has accomplished uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth.

But Jesus nowhere in the Gospels urges his followers to worship him, though he insistently calls them to follow him. One of the surest ways to avoid the challenge of the Incarnation, one of the most effective means of closing our eyes, is to engage in just this sort of pseudo-pious distantiation. But the Gospels want us, not outside the energy of Christ, but in it, not wondering at it, but swimming in it.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as the vine onto which we are grafted like branches, and he compares himself to food which we are to take into ourselves. These beautifully organic images are meant to highlight our participation in the event of the Incarnation, our concrete citizenship in the Kingdom of God. It was the great medieval mystic Meister Eckhart who commented that the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus of Nazareth long ago is of no interest and importance unless that same word becomes incarnate in us today.

(In) Mark’s Gospel: “repent and believe the Good News.” The word so often and so misleadingly translated as “repent” is metanoiete. This Greek term is based upon two words, mew (beyond) and nous (mind or spirit), and thus, in its most basic form, it means something like “go beyond the mind that you have.”

The English word “repent” has a moralizing overtone, suggesting a change in behavior or action, whereas Jesus’ term seems to be hinting at a change at a far more fundamental level of one’s being. Jesus urges his listeners to change their way of knowing, their way of perceiving and grasping reality, their perspective, their mode of seeing.

What Jesus implies is this: the new state of affairs has arrived, the divine and human have met, but the way you customarily see is going to blind you to this novelty. In the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus expresses the same concern: “The Kingdom of God is spread out on the earth, but people do not see it.” Minds, eyes, ears, senses, perceptions — all have to he opened up, turned around, revitalized. Metanoia, soul transformation, is Jesus’ first recommendation.

Perceiving With A Mind Of Fear
We see and know and perceive with a mind of fear rather than with a mind of trust. When we fear, we cling to who we are and what we have; when we are afraid, we see ourselves as the threatened center of a hostile universe, and thus we violently defend ourselves and lash out at potential adversaries. And fear — according to so many of the biblical authors and so many of the mystics and theologians of our tradition — is a function of living our lives at the surface level, a result of forgetting our deepest identity.

At the root and ground of our being, at the “center” of who we are, there is what Christianity calls “the image and likeness of God.” This means that at the foundation of our existence, we are one with the divine power which continually creates and sustains the universe; we are held and cherished by the infinite love of God. When we rest in this center and realize its power, we know that, in an ultimate sense, we are safe, or, in more classical religious language, “saved.” And therefore we can let go of fear and begin to live in radical trust.

But when we lose sight of this rootedness in God, we live exclusively on the tiny island of the ego, and lives become dominated by fear. Fear is the “original sin” of which the church fathers speak; fear is the poison that was injected into human consciousness and human society from the beginning; fear is the debilitating and life-denying element which upsets the “chemical balance” of both psyche and society.

To overcome fear is to move from the pusilla anima (the small soul) to the magna anima (the great soul). When we are dominated by our egos, we live in a very narrow space, in the angustiae (the straits) between this fear and that, between this attachment and that, But when we surrender in trust to the bearing power of God, our souls become great, roomy, expansive. We realize that we are connected to all things and to the creative energy of the whole cosmos.

Interestingly, the term magna anima shares a Sanskrit root with the word mahatma, and both mean “great soul.” What Jesus calls for in metanoia is the transformation from the terrified and self-regarding small soul to the confident and soaring great soul. The seeing of the Kingdom, in short, is not for the pusillanimous but for the magnanimous.

Now like the word metanoiete, the term pisteuete (believe) has been terribly misunderstood over the centuries, coming, unfortunately, to mean the dry assent to religious propositions for which there is little or no evidence. Since the Enlightenment and its altogether legitimate insistence on rational responsibility, faith, in the sense just described, has come into disrepute. It seems to be the last refuge of uncritical people, those desperate to find some assurance with regard to the ultimate things and thus willing to swallow even the most far-fetched theories and beliefs.

Happily, “belief” in the biblical and traditional sense of the term has nothing to do with this truncated and irresponsible rationality. “To believe,” as Jesus uses the term, signals, not so much a way of knowing as a way of being known. To have faith is to allow oneself to be overwhelmed by the power of God, to permit the divine energy to reign at all levels of one’s being. As such, it is not primarily a matter of understanding and assenting to propositions as it is surrendering to the God who wants to become incarnate in us. In Paul Tillich’s language, “faith” is being grasped by Ultimate Concern, permitting oneself to be shaken and turned by the in-breaking God.

Hence when Jesus urges his listeners to believe, he is inviting them, not so much to adhere to a new set of propositions, but rather to let go of the dominating and fearful ego and learn once more to live in the confidence of the magna anirna. He is calling them to find the new center of their lives where he finds his own, in the unconditional love of God.

One of the tragic ironies of the tradition is that Jesus’ “faith,” interpreted along rationalist lines, serves only to boost up the ego, confirming it in its grasping and its fear: I have the faith, and you don’t; do I really understand the statements I claim to believe? The state of mind designed to quell the ego has been, more often than not, transformed into one more ego game. “Believing” the “Good News” has nothing to do with these games of the mind. It has everything to do with radical change of life and vision, with the simple (and dreadfully complex) process of allowing oneself to swim in the divine sea, to find the true self by letting go of the old center.

Bartimaeus The Blind Man
Inspired by this voice, convinced that he has discovered the pearl of great price, the Unum Necessarium, Bartimaeus jumps up, throws off his cloak and comes to Jesus. In the early centuries of the church, those about to be baptized were invited to strip themselves of their clothes, symbolizing thereby their renunciation of their old way of life. In Mark’s story, the blind man prepares for inner transformation by throwing off the cloak of his old consciousness, his old pattern of desire, the lifestyle which has rendered him spiritually blind. Then, at the feet of Jesus, Bartimaeus hears the question that all of us hear in the stillness of the heart, the question which comes from the divine power within and which subtly but firmly invites us to transformation:

“What do you want me to do for you?” God beckons us, but God never compels us, Then, in one of the simplest and most poignant lines in the Scripture, Bartimaeus says, “Master, I want to see again.” Desperately in the dark, hounded by the demons of desire, caught in the narrow passage of ego-consciousness, Bardmaeus wants to see with a deeper, broader, and clearer vision.

In his pain, and also in his confidence, Bartimaeus stands for all of us spiritual seekers, all who hope against hope that there might be a way to live outside the tyranny of the ego. He wants precisely what we have been exploring here: a new attitude, a new perspective, the magna anima. And Jesus’ answer to Bartimaeus, “Go, your faith has saved you,” is perfectly in line with the “inaugural address” which we have been analyzing. What saves the blind man is the metanoia which culminates in faith, the shift in consciousness from ego-dominance to surrender.

What restores the vision of the spiritual seeker is the throwing off of the old mind and the adoption, through God’s grace, of a divine mind. Of course, the story ends with Bartimaeus, “following Jesus up the road.” It ends, in a word, with discipleship. Once the soul has been transfigured, the only path that seems appealing is the one walked by Christ, that is to say, the path of radical self-offering, self-surrender. Fired by the God-consciousness, in touch with the Divine source within us, drinking from the well of eternal life, we are inspired simply to pour ourselves out in love.

The “Metanoetic” Function In The Theology Of The Patristic Period
Paul and the evangelists were the first Christian “theologians,” that is, those seeking to say a logos, a word, about what God has done in Jesus of Nazareth. Their “words” are always in imitation of the Word, who is Christ himself, the embodiment of the Kingdom of God. Thus, their “theologies” are, as we have hinted, not primarily rational, philosophical investigations of the nature of God, but instead efforts in the direction of life transformation, re-presentations of the energy of the original Word. In this sense, Christian theology, in the beginning, had an unmistakably “evangelical,” missionary, practical flavor.

This “metanoetic” function is perfectly evident in the theology which grew out of the New Testament tradition and flourished in the first centuries of the church. In the patristic period, the most prominent theologians were pastors, bishops, catechists, and monks — and not what we would call “academicians.” No theologian of the early church was writing for an academic audience or to receive tenure or to be published in technical journals of theology, On the contrary, they were writing (to be sure, at a very sophisticated level) for the spiritual benefit of the people they were concretely serving. Theology was, like preaching and pastoral care, for the sake of salvation.

In this context, it is helpful to consider the example of Origen, the third-century catechist of the Christian church at Alexandria. This ingenious pastor and teacher speaks of theology as theoria. Obviously, we have derived our word “theory” from this Greek term, but we must beware of identifyng the two. For the ancient Greeks, and for Origen, theoria designated, not abstract knowing, but rather mystical vision and contemplation, the type of seeing that awakens and sustains wonder. For these ancient thinkers, one did not engage in theoria in order to satisfy the curiosity of the mind, but to assuage the deepest longings of the spirit. In his homilies, his scriptural studies, and his voluminous theological works, Origen of Alexandria offers his readers a “theoretical” vision of Jesus Christ; he holds up an icon of the Lord and hopes thereby to change the souls of his audience.

“Theoretical” Icons Have A Saving Power
St. Athanasius, the embattled and feisty fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, was the impassioned defender of the Christological formulas of the Council of Nicea. Against the powerful, numerically superior, and well-organized Opposition of the Arians, Athanasius proclaimed the legitimacy of the homoousios teaching, the conviction that Jesus is “one in being” with the Father, fully divine. To safeguard this doctrine, Athanasius not only engaged in fierce theological polemics, hut he also withstood public humiliation, exile, and the constant threat of violence. When we read the account of Athanasius’s travails today, we are tempted to smile, perhaps a bit condescendingly.

Why, after all, would a man go through so much simply to defend an idea, a dogma? Our confusion is the result of our profoundly truncated understanding of the nature of ideas. Athanasius did not put his life on the line for the Nicean formula simply because he thought it was a relatively adequate rational expression of Christian belief He stood contra mundum, defending Nicea ferociously because he believed that the salvation of the Christian community depended on that doctrine.

To fudge the teaching, as the Arians had, was not only to misplay a theological language game, but to compromise radically the dynamics of inner transformation in the minds and hearts of believers. Like his contemporaries and like the New Testament authors, Athanasius was convinced that “theoretical” icons have a saving power only when they are painted correctly.

Spirituality Vs Theology
If one had asked Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, or Aquinas to distinguish between his technical theology and his “spirituality,” he would have been at a loss. He would probably not even have understood the question. For the great thinkers of Christianity, from the New Testament period up through the Middle Ages, the “metanoetic” quality of theology was taken for granted. But a split between what we call today “spirituality” and “theology” began to open up sometime around the beginning of the fourteenth century, that is to say, in the period just after the death of Thomas Aquinas.

Theology, words about God, became increasingly a formal academic discipline, taught alongside of law and medicine in the great universities, whereas spirituality, reflection on the experience of God in one’s life, became a more or less underground concern of monks and mystics. In their effort to find intellectual respectability, theologians endeavored to conform to the more and more objective and disinterested style of the academy, thus consciously putting aside feeling, personal commitment, the focus on conversion. It is interesting to me that, according to the general consensus, Catholic theology went into decline just after this tragic rupture occurred, deteriorating into a cold and arid scholasticism, ready-made answers for technical questions unrelated to anyone’s lived experience of the faith.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the terrible division between theology and spirituality was addressed by Catholic theologians, The thinkers associated with the controversial nouvelle theologie (the new theology) — Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and others — sought to return to the biblical and patristic sources that had given form to Catholic thought. And what they saw in the Bible and in the fathers was precisely the dynamic that we have been exploring; theology, not as a lifeless game of question and answer, but as seeing, as transforming, as a catalyst for soul conversion.

The Imago Dei
The Christian answer to these questions is contained in the doctrine of the imago Dei. There is indeed something terribly the matter with us, and there is, at the same time, something foundationally good, something “divine” at the heart of us, a power or principle that keeps us hoping and living and striving. As the weed pushes its way through the harsh cement of the city sidewalk, so the human soul grows stubbornly and almost inexplicably toward, the light.

When Jesus uttered his call for metanoia, he was assuming the presence of what our tradition has called original sin, and he was also presupposing the imago, some elemental goodness, some capacity for change and transformation. And people came to Christ, drank in his words, reveled in the provocativeness of his gestures, precisely because they felt the same tension of sin and imago Dei in themselves: they were sick, but they recognized what would make them well.

Thus, the proper starting point for any healthy Christian theological anthropology is a clear sense of the togetherness of original sin and likeness unto God, for without the first, metanoia is unnecessary, and without the second, it is impossible. Thus, just as we must look at the dark face of our own sin, so we must look at the beauty that is God’s enduring presence within us. Both of these facts must he seen, accounted for, experienced if effective metanoia is to take place. We must know and, more to the point, feel in our bones, what is wrong in us; we must look it in the face and acknowledge it with uncompromising honesty.

Without this “searching moral inventory,” without this journey into our own inner Hell, we will not feel the compunction to shift our way of being and seeing. And, at the same time, we must awaken to what is god-like in us, what is rich and fecund and unbroken, what is in continuity with the saving designs of God. Without this clear sense, we will fall into complacency or hopelessness and see metanoia as, at best, a cruel illusion, Yes, the pusilla anima must be acknowledged, but the magna anima must be hoped for with confidence.


Reading Selections from “Fearful Symmetries” by Stephen M. Barr

September 17, 2010

Dr. Steven M. Barr

Science seeks the elegant, elusive simplicity of the universe itself but suffers from the propensity of many of its adherents to flatten and trivialize the world by reductionism. In yesterday’s post C.S. Lewis wrote:

Christianity claims to give an account of facts — to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be: if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all.

I wonder which facts would affect the atheist more. I think of the atheists who deny the historicity of the New Testament or retreat to the narrowness of the scientific method, for whom the inability to pull God from a test tube is prima facie evidence of his lack of existence. I think Steven Barr’s latest writings might come close.  Dr. Stephen M. Barr is professor of physics at the University of Delaware and author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith and A Student’s Guide to Natural Science. Reading selections from Fearful Symmetries here:

Since the time of Newton, science has advanced by a strategy rightly called “reductionism.” This method, which explains things by analyzing them into smaller and simpler parts, has yielded a rich harvest of discoveries about the natural world. As a means of analysis, then, reductionism has certainly proven its value. But many wonder whether science is reductive in a more radical and disturbing way — by flattening, collapsing, and trivializing the world. For all its intellectual accomplishments, does science end up taking our sense of reality down several notches? One could well get that impression from perusing the writings of certain scientists. Francis Crick famously asserted that human life is “no more than the behavior of . . . nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, once described people as “machines made of meat.” Neuroscientist Giulio Giorelli announced that “we have a soul, but it is made up of many tiny robots.” And biologist Charles Zuker has concluded that “in essence, we are nothing but a big fly.”

A Metaphysical Tendency Accompanying Reductionism
This tendency to downgrade and diminish reflects a metaphysical prejudice that equates explanatory reduction with a grim slide down the ladder of being. Powerful explanatory schemes reveal things to be simpler than they appear. What simpler means in science is much discussed among philosophers—it is not at all a simple question. But to many materialists it seems to mean lower, cruder, and more trivial. By this way of thinking, the further we push toward a more basic understanding of things, the more we are im-mersed in meaningless, brutish bits of matter.

The philosopher Georges Rey has written, for example, that “any ultimate explanation of mental phenomena will have to be in non-mental [i.e., sub-mental or material] terms or else it won’t be an explanation of it.” Of course, the logic of this could be turned around. One could just as well say that any ultimate explanation of the material world must be in nonmaterial terms. But for materialists the lower explains the higher; and lower does not just mean more fundamental but instead suggests a diminished ontological status. The presumption is that explanations move from evolved complexity to primitive stuff.

At first glance, the history of the cosmos seems to bear this out. Early on, the universe was filled with nearly featureless gas and dust, which eventually condensed to form galaxies, stars, and planets. In stars and supernovas, the simplest elements, hydrogen and helium, fused to make heavier ones, gradually building up the whole periodic table. In some primordial soup, or slime, or ooze on the early earth, atoms agglomerated into larger and more intricate molecules until self-replicating ones appeared and life began. From one-celled organisms, ever more complicated living things evolved, until sensation and thought appeared. In cosmic evolution the arrow apparently moves from chaos to order, formlessness to form, triviality to complexity, and matter to mind.

Dennett Theory Of Religion
And that is why, according to philosopher Daniel Dennett, religion has it exactly upside down. Believers think that God reached down to bring order and create, whereas in reality the world was built — or rather built itself — from the ground up. In Dennett’s metaphor, the world was constructed not by “skyhooks” reaching down from the heavens but by “cranes” supported by, and reaching up from, the solid ground.

The history to which the atheist points — of matter self-organizing and physical structures growing in complexity — is correct as far as it goes, but it is only part of the story. The lessons the atheist draws are naive. Yes, the world we experience is the result of processes that move upward. But Dennett and others overlook the hidden forces and principles that govern those processes. In short, they are not true reductionists because they don’t go all the way down to the most basic explanations of reality.

As we turn to the fundamental principles of physics, we discover that order does not really emerge from chaos, as we might naively assume; it always emerges from greater and more impressive order already present at a deeper level. It turns out that things are not more coarse or crude or unformed as one goes down into the foundations of the physical world but more subtle, sophisticated, and intricate the deeper one goes.

An Example
Let’s start with a simple but instructive example of how order can appear to emerge spontaneously from mere chaos through the operation of natural forces. Imagine a large number of identical marbles rolling around randomly in a shoe box. If the box is tilted, all the marbles will roll down into a corner and arrange themselves into what is called the “hexagonal closest packing” pattern. (This is the same pattern one sees in oranges stacked on a fruit stand or in cells in a beehive.) This orderly structure emerges as the result of blind physical forces and mathematical laws. There is no hand arranging it. Physics requires the marbles to lower their gravitational potential energy as much as possible by squeezing down into the corner, which leads to the geometry of hexagonal packing.

At this point it seems as though order has indeed sprung from mere chaos. To see why this is wrong, however, consider a genuinely chaotic situation: a typical teenager’s bedroom. Imagine a huge jack tilting the bedroom so that everything in it slides into a corner. The result would not be an orderly pattern but instead a jumbled heap of lamps, furniture, books, clothing, and what have you.

Why the difference? Part of the answer is that, unlike the objects in the bedroom, the marbles in the box all have the same size and shape. But there’s more to it. Put a number of spoons of the same size and shape into a box and tilt it, and the result will be a jumbled heap. Marbles differ from spoons because their shape is spherical. When spoons tumble into a corner, they end up pointing every which way, but marbles don’t point every which way, because no matter which way a sphere is turned it looks exactly the same.

These two crucial features of the marbles—having the same shape and having a spherical shape—should be understood as principles of order that are already present in the supposedly chaotic situation before the box was tilted. In fact, the more we reduce to deeper explanations, the higher we go. This is because, in a sense that can be made mathematically precise, the preexisting order inherent in the marbles is greater than the order that emerges after the marbles arrange themselves. This requires some expla-nation.

Both the preexisting order and the order that emerges involve symmetry, a concept of central importance in modern physics, as we’ll see. Mathematicians and physicists have a peculiar way of thinking about symmetry: A symmetry is something that is done. For example, if one rotates a square by 90 degrees, it looks the same, so rotating by 90 degrees is said to be a symme-try of the square. So is rotating by 180 degrees, 270 degrees, or a full 360 degrees. A square thus has exactly four symmetries.

Not surprisingly, the hexagonal pattern the marbles form has six symmetries (rotating by any multiple of 60 degrees: 60, 120, 180, 240, 300, and 360 degrees). A sphere, on the other hand, has an infinite number of symmetries—doubly infinite, in fact, since rotating a sphere by any angle about any axis leaves it looking the same. And, what’s more, the symmetries of a sphere include all the symmetries of a hexagon.

If we think this way about symmetry, careful analysis shows that, when marbles arrange themselves into the hexagonal pattern, just six of the infinite number of symmetries in the shape of the marbles are ex-pressed or manifested in their final arrangement. The rest of the symmetries are said, in the jargon of physics, to be spontaneously broken. So, in the simple example of marbles in a tilted box, we can see that symmetry isn’t popping out of nowhere. It is being distilled out of a greater symmetry already present within the spherical shape of the marbles.

Spontaneous Symmetry
The idea of spontaneous symmetry breaking is important in fundamental physics. The equations of electromagnetism have a mathematical structure that is dictated by a set of so-called gauge symmetries, discovered by the mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl almost a century ago. For a long time it seemed that two other basic forces of nature, the weak force and the strong force, were not based on symmetries. But about forty years ago it was found that the weak force is actually based on an even larger set of gauge symmetries than those of electromagnetism.

Because the symmetries of the weak force are spontaneously broken, however, they do not manifest or express themselves in an obvious way, which is why it took so long to discover them. (The strong force is based on a yet larger set of gauge symmetries, but this fact was obscured by a quite different effect and also was not discovered for a long time.)

This history illustrates a general trend in modern physics: The more deeply it has probed the structure of matter, the greater the mathematical order it has found. The order we see in nature does not come from chaos; it is distilled out of a more fundamental order.

Symmetry is just one kind of order. In the case of the marbles in the box, other principles of order were also at work, such as the principle that caused the marbles to seek out the configuration of lowest energy. This is an aspect of a beautiful mathematical principle, called the principle of least action that underlies all of classical physics. When physicists investigated the subatomic realm, however, they discovered that the principle of least action is just a limiting case of the much more subtle and sophisticated path integral principle, which is the basis of quantum mechanics, as Richard Feynman showed in the 1940s. The lesson is the same: The deeper one looks, the more remarkable the mathematical structure one sees.

An Underlying Order
The mathematical order underlying physical phenomena is most easily observed in the motions of the heavenly bodies. Even primitive societies were aware of it, and it inspired not only feelings of religious awe (many expressions of which are found in the Bible itself) but also the earliest attempts at mathematical science. And when scientists began to study the solar system with more precision, they discovered unsuspected patterns even more beautiful than those known to the ancients.

Four hundred years ago, for example, Johannes Kepler discovered three marvelous geometrical laws that describe planetary motion. So impressed was he by the beauty of these laws that he wrote this prayer in his treatise Harmonices Mundi (The harmonies of the world): “I thank thee, Lord God our Creator, that thou hast allowed me to see the beauty in thy work of creation.” Decades later, Newton succeeded in explaining Kepler’s laws — but he did not explain them down, if by down we mean reducing what we observe and experience to something more trivial or brutish.

On the contrary, he explained them by deriving them from an underlying order that is more general and impressive, which we now call Newton’s laws of mechanics and gravity. Newton’s law of gravity was later explained, in turn, by Einstein, who showed that it followed from a more profound theory of gravity called general relativity. And it is now generally believed that Einstein’s theory is but the manifestation of a yet more fundamental theory, which many suspect to be superstring theory. Superstring theory has a mathematical structure so sophisticated that, after a quarter of a century of study by hundreds of the world’s most brilliant physicists and mathematicians, it is still not fully understood.

It is true that science seeks to simplify our picture of the world. An explanation should in some sense be simpler than the thing it explains. And, indeed, there is a sense in which Einstein’s theory of gravity is simpler than Newton’s, and Newton’s theory of planetary motion simpler than Kepler’s.

As physics Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek notes, however, Einstein’s theory is “not ‘simple’ in the usual sense of the word.” Whereas Kepler’s laws can be explained in a few minutes to a junior-high-school student, Newton’s laws cannot be fully explained without using calculus. And to explain Einstein’s theory requires four-dimensional, curved, non-Euclidean space-time and much else besides. And yet, once we know enough, Einstein’s theory does have a compelling simplicity greater than Newton’s theory. The simplicity to which scientific reductionism leads us, then, is of a very paradoxical kind. It is a simplicity that is by no means simpleminded. It is not at all jejune, but deeply interesting and intellectually rich.

Paradoxical Reductionism In Chess
The same paradox can be found in many fields. The chess world champion Capablanca was admired for the purity and simplicity of his style. But to understand his moves one must have an understanding of the game that can be acquired only by years of experience and study. A later world champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, wrote of him, “In this simplicity there was a unique beauty of genuine depth.” Another world champion, Emanuel Lasker, observed that “[in Capablanca’s games] there is nothing hidden, artificial, or labored. Although they are transparent, they are never banal and are often deep.” Wilczek had just the right term for this kind of simplicity, which is also found in the fundamental laws of physics: profound simplicity.

Profound Simplicity
Profound simplicity always impresses with its elegance, economy of means, harmony, and perfection. This perfection, as Wilczek notes, is such that one feels that the slightest alteration would be disastrous. He quotes Salieri’s envious description of Mozart’s music in the film Amadeus: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” Applying this to physics, Wilczek says, “A theory begins to be perfect if any change makes it worse. . . . A theory becomes perfectly perfect if it’s impossible to change it without ruining it entirely.”

Symmetry is one of the factors that contribute to profound simplicity, both in the laws of physics and in works of art. Paint over one petal of the rose window of a cathedral, remove one column from a colonnade, and the symmetry is destroyed. Each part is necessary for the completion of the pattern.

The symmetries that characterize the deepest laws of physics are mathematically richer and stranger than the ones we encounter in everyday life. The gauge symmetries of the strong and weak forces, for example, involve rotations in abstract mathematical spaces with complex dimensions. In other words, the coordinates in those pecu-liar spaces are not ordinary numbers, as they are for the space in which we live, but complex numbers, which are numbers that contain the square root of minus one. Grand unified theories—which combine the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces into a single mathe-matical structure—posit symmetries that involve rotations in abstract spaces of five or more complex dimensions.

Stranger and more profoundly simple are supersymmetries. There is much reason to think that supersymmetries are built into the laws of physics, and finding evidence of that is one of the main goals of the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, Switzerland, which has recently begun to take data. Supersymmetries involve so-called Grassmann numbers, which are utterly different from the ordinary numbers we use to count and measure things. Whereas ordinary numbers (and even complex numbers) have the common-sense property that a × b = b × a, Grassmann numbers have the bizarre property that a × b = -b × a. A simple enough formula, but hard indeed for the human mind to fathom.

Esoteric symmetries also lie at the heart of Einstein’s theory of relativity. These Lorentz symmetries involve rotations not just in three-dimensional space but in four-dimensional space-time. We can all visualize the symmetries of a sphere or a hexagonal pattern, but Lorentz symmetries, supersymmetries, and the gauge symmetries of the weak, strong, and grand unified forces lie far outside our experience and intuition. They can be grasped only with the tools of advanced mathematics.

Physicists have found beauty in the mathematical principles animating the physical world, from Kepler, who praised God for the elegant geometry of the planets’ orbits, to Hermann Weyl, for whom mathematical physics revealed a “flawless harmony that is in conformity with sublime Reason.”

Some might suspect that this beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or that scientists think their own theories beautiful simply out of vanity. But there is a remarkable fact that suggests otherwise. Again and again throughout history, what started as pure mathematics — ideas developed solely for the sake of their intrinsic interest and elegance — turned out later to be needed to express fundamental laws of physics.

Starting As Pure Mathematics Later Needed For  Fundamental Laws Of Physics
For example, complex numbers were invented and the theory of them deeply investigated by the early nine-teenth century, a mathematical development that seemed to have no relevance to physical reality. Only in the 1920s was it discovered that complex numbers were needed to write the equations of quantum mechanics. Or, in another instance, when the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton invented quaternions in the mid-nineteenth century, they were regarded as an ingenious but totally useless construct. Hamilton himself held this view.

When asked by an aristocratic lady whether quaternions were useful for anything, Hamilton joked, “Aye, madam, quaternions are very useful — for solving problems involving quaternions.” And yet, many decades later, quaternions were put to use to describe properties of subatomic particles such as the spin of electrons as well as the relation between neutrons and protons. Or again, Riemannian geometry was developed long before it was found to be needed for Einstein’s theory of gravity. And a branch of mathematics called the theory of Lie groups was developed before it was found to describe the gauge symmetries of the fundamental forces.

Indeed, mathematical beauty has become a guiding principle in the search for better theories in fundamental physics. Werner Heisenberg wrote, “In exact science, no less than in the arts, beauty is the most important source of illumina-tion and clarity.” Paul Dirac, one of the giants of twentieth-century physics, went so far as to say that it was more important to have “beauty in one’s equations” than to have them fit the experimental data.

At the roots of the physical world, therefore, one does not find mere inchoate slime or dust but instead a richness and perfection of form based on profound, subtle, and beautiful mathematical ideas. This is what the famous astrophysicist Sir James Jeans meant when he said many decades ago that “the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Benedict XVI expressed the same basic insight when in his Regensburg lecture he referred to “the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality,…the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature.”

A Greater And More Impressive Order
Modern science does not directly imply or require any particular metaphysical theory of reality, but it does suggest to us that the picture presented by Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins is false because the picture is only partial. In the terms of Dennett’s meta-phor of cranes constructing complexity, one sees what is built from the ground up; but delving beneath the surface, one finds an astonishing, hidden world — the underground mechanisms of the cranes, as it were.

It is true that the cosmos was at one point a swirling mass of gas and dust out of which has come the extraordinary complexity of life as we experience it. Yet, at every moment in this process of development, a greater and more impressive order operates within — an order that did not develop but was there from the beginning. In the upper world, mind, thought, and ideas make their appearance as fruit on the topmost branches of an evolutionary tree. Below the surface, we see the taproots of reality, the fundamental laws of physics that shimmer with ideas of profound simplicity.

To describe people as machines made of meat is as scientifically unsophisticated as to think of the sun as a heat-emitting machine made of swirl-ing gas. It ignores the reasons why the machines function as they do—reasons that the explanations of modern physics reduce to simplici-ties as elegant as they are elusive. Peering into the hidden depths, we see that matter itself is the expression of “a great thought,” of ideas that are, as Weyl said, “in conformity with sublime Reason.” And we begin to discover that matter, although mindless itself, is the product of a Mind of infinite profundity and infinite simplicity.


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