Zacchaeus: Because of his Sins, he Sought Christ

zacchaeusZACCHAEUS SUNDAY 2009         Luke 19:1-10

Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector whom we learn about in Luke’s Gospel Lesson, 19:1-10, is a saint in the Orthodox Church. He is given the title of “Apostle”, though not one of the Twleve, he is ranked among those first apostles who responded to the Gospel of Christ and then taught that Good News to others.    Nikephoros Xanthopoulos (d. 1335AD) wrote about Jesus inviting Himself t the Apostle Zacchaeus’ home :

Zacchaeus accepted this proposal of the Lord with all his soul, and he rushed with joy and received Him in his home and offered Him hospitality with all willingness. It was not only because he believed in Christ with all his soul that he hosted Him with particular willingness, but also because he actively repented for former sins, and he said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (Luke 19:8)…Zacchaeus’ conversion in this manner offers us two important lessons:  first, God’s compassion and the signs of sincere and active repentance, and second, the fact that correction of evil as far as one is able is an inseparable proof of sincere repentance. In this manner, the good Zaccaeus exceeded the ordinances of the Mosaic Law in his generosity, for which cause he was accounted worthy of the Lord’s blessing. (Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion)

Zacchaeus had a desire to see Christ, perhaps even wishing he could unburden his soul.  However, Zacchaeus also knew he was greedy, that he had defrauded others, he was stingy, he was a thief.   Therefore he did not see himself as worthy of approaching Christ.  Christ on the other hand could see past the sinfulness of Zacchaeus and saw a sick and troubled heart.  Jesus speaks to Zacchaeus by name and says he is compelled to stay at Zacchaeus’ house.   So overjoyed at Christ’s words was Zacchaeus that he immediately blurts out his repentance – he revealed what was really on his heart.  Christ thus unburdened Zacchaeus from the weight of his sin.   We too who are burdened with our own selfishness, greed, need for power over others, and our lies, should take heart in Zaccheus’ experience.  While he was still a sinner Zacchaeus received a call from Christ – “invite me into your life.”    This is the mood and the milieu of Great Lent which will soon be upon us.   BECAUSE of our sins, let us seek Christ.  It is not our righteousness (or self righteousness) that brings us to Christ.  It is the knowledge and realization of our own sinfulness that brings us to Him.   When we realize that our life, life choices, or life style, or even our thinking have cut us off from God, alienated us from God, or put us an enmity with God, then we know that we need a way back to God.  That Way is Christ.  It is Jesus Christ who unites humanity, sinful humanity, to God.   We cannot get back into God’s good graces without coming to Christ.  

We may even be afraid of God because we know what sins we have committed – Christ calls us to Himself anyway.  Come to Christ and receive the forgiveness of your sins and the healing of your heart.  Never mind that you turned away from God or despised His Commandments;  Christ is the way to restoration with God through having your sins forgiven.

U.S. Stimulus Package: Imminence vs. Importance

President Obama met with Republican congressmen and senators yesterday in what some see as an unusual move, yet is totally consistent with his claims that he is trying to do something different in Washington.

Yes he can, in all probability get a stimulus package passed through both houses on Capitol Hill without the support of Republicans.  The reality of the economic crisis facing America and the world is that what would best serve the interest of our country is that we have decent buy in from both major political parties.   Why do I think this is important?

There is no guarantee that whatever is attempted is going to work, have a positive impact on the crisis, be successful in attaining its goals.  Unfortunately, there is no agreement among economists or politicians as to what might work nor on what the negative impact of whatever is attempted might be.  (see the article on Keynesian economics and the great unknowns)   Many feel there is a narrow window open to try to prevent an even worse economic scenario from unfolding, but the opinions about all these things are based in ideology more than in verifiable fact.  Additionally, in economics there is probably some truth to the notion that like with many bodily ills, even if a person does nothing, the illness often eventually gets better ‘on its own.’  So the question is:  will the proposed “cure” be less harmful to the patient than the illness itself?   Or as I’ve learned about dealing with chronic illness: there no cure to the problem;  all we can do is to try to manage the problem and learn to cope with its effects.

Because there are no guarantees as to what might work, thus greater bi-partisan buy in on the stimulus package means greater chance that more of the politicians will take ownership of  and responsibility for the solution (they already own the problem).    This means if the “recovery” gets shaky at points or falter, the politicians will work together to shore up the solution, rather than all stepping back and watching the whole thing collapse in a passive aggressive I-told-you-so mode.   The stimulus package is huge and so has lots of opportunities for critics to step up and engage in endless political guerrilla warfare against the effort.   To allow the stimulus package to be a Democratic solution is to put 40-45% of the electorate and congress in opposition to the effort, whereas this is truly a time for everyone to work together for the common good and general welfare.  Neither Obama nor the nation need or would benefit by having 45% of the people taking shots at the plan or finding chinks in the armor.   Rather he and the nation would be much better off if the Republicans saw whatever armor the stimulus plan offers to protect the nation as protecting them as well rather than being something they are endeavoring to weaken.

A bigger portion of the burden for finding compromise and cooperation and bipartisanship is going to fall on the Democratic majority.  For they will be tempted to use their majority status to ignore Republican concerns.  But if President Obama is serious about bringing change to Washington, then he is going to have to stand up to his own party to bring about the needed change.   In a NY TIMES article from 27 January 2009 the usual way of doing business in Washington is made clear to Obama:

While he is relatively new to Washington, having served less than one term in the Senate, many Democrats who have served longer harbor rancor from past years when Republicans ran Congress and, with George W. Bush in the White House, excluded Democrats from lawmaking.

If change is going to come to Washington and partisan gridlock is going to end, the Democrats are going to have to end it by forgetting the past and dealing with the present problem and situation in order to set the course for the future.  President Obama is the one who is going to have to lead the Democrats out of this past and into the future – not by forgetting Republican fiscal concerns (which surely are valid – we are proposing a huge solution which we are asking Americans in the future to pay for) but by forgetting how things were done in the recent past by those in power. To lift a phrase from St. Paul:  “one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize”  (Philippians 3:13-14).  We will see whether the Democrats place the nation ahead of politics.

A last aside – in coming up with an economic solution, all politicians would do well to remember what got us into our current situation.  1)  American short-sightedness: we have been addicted to short term gains, profits and financial growth.  Let us not lose sight of what is important by focusing completely on what is imminent.  2)  While many politicians and economists are calling for lenders to again begin lending generously, remember a good deal of what caused the economic collapse was the pushing of generous lending to get more people into pyramid scheme of economic growth.  How can the very thing which triggered the economic collapse possibly be part of the proposed solution?  Mostly because of what I mentioned in #1.

Science as a Verb not a Noun

“Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.” (Dennis Overbye)

I have an interest in science for the same reason I have an interest in religion:  the search for truth.  And though since the time of the Enlightenment some in science and religion have been in a culture war regarding truth, I don’t see science and religion as being enemies since both are most interested in truth.  Of course there are differences in how truth is perceived – whether it is waiting to be discovered or has already been revealed, whether it is an understanding that emerges from humans interpreting the ‘knowns’ or is a given to which we submit ourselves.  Some in Christianity argue that when it comes to truth, it is always a movement from darkness into the light, others show that the movement toward God for humans is always moving from the known to the unknown.

I much appreciated Dennis Overbye’s NY TIMES 26 January 2009 essay Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy precisely because it addressed some of the issues in the science vs. religion/faith vs. reason culture wars.

Einstein said he never got any ethical values from his scientific work, a thought which Overbye too readily dismisses, for he tends to portray science as a values neutral but benevolent force as it goes about understanding the universe.  However can one really doubt that science deals with increasingly powerful technology that has the ability to change the present and shape the future – for good or for ill.

Overbye does believe science has a set of values associated with it, and indeed they are values beloved in the Enlightenment’s democratic, pragmatic world. 

Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity – the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill – that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

Those last words from Overbye are partly what makes science so intellectually appealing to many – science really is a human product, the result of human work and effort, and not the result of grace or revelation from an unseen and unpredictable deity.  Science sees itself as having wrested from a universe reluctant to reveal its secrets every bit of knowledge it has obtained by penetrating into every corner of the universe.  This of course is also what makes religionists uneasy about science – it is no respecter of the universe, nothing is treated with reverence, but rather the material world is meant to be prodded, broken down, torn apart, ripped open (Francis Bacon saw this effort as necessary to rid the world of the false ideas of philosophical superstition).  However it seems it is not only the material universe which gets no reverence in this, but God  as well.

Overbye sees the pragmatic goodness in what science has accomplished (“the most successful human activity of all time”), and he links the values of science to democracy:

“It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.”

He points out that systems of thought which are ideologically driven find science a threat and see the need to subdue science and scientists to make them conform their thinking to the party line.   Thus he thinks science is a good tool against political tyranny, or the oppressive rule of a minority, or the majority.   Science, so he argues, has no leader and no grand plan, and thus apparently marches on in a random evolutionary fashion with survival of the fittest ideas surviving the natural selection of the scientific method (but not according to the whimsical dictates of democratic majority rule – this is where the twins of science and democracy part company).  His is an idealistic thought, for science has been controlled at times  – by politicians and ideologues, and like today there are ‘genetic engineers’ who would if they could not only shape but control the future of science according to their own agendas.

The Tree of Life: Darwin vs. Genesis

darwinwrongAny magazine whose cover story proclaims that Darwin was wrong is sure to attract some attention from biologists, evolutionary theorists, intelligent design adherents and creationists.   But when the magazine is devoted to the study of science rather than defending a religious belief, it surely will draw the attention of those who have engaged in the evolution vs creation, faith vs. Reason, science  vs. Religion debates.    Such is the cover of the 21 January 2009 issue of NewScientist.  In that issues Graham Lawton reasons Why Darwin Was Wrong About the Tree of Life .

The issue and the debate are interesting.  Lawton begins the article by stating:

The tree-of-life concept was absolutely central to Darwin’s thinking, equal in importance to natural selection, according to biologist W. Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Without it the theory of evolution would never have happened. The tree also helped carry the day for evolution. Darwin argued successfully that the tree of life was a fact of nature, plain for all to see though in need of explanation. The explanation he came up with was evolution by natural selection.

So often the anti-evolutionary forces line up to say if Darwin was wrong in any one point of his theory than his entire theory is wrong.  But when science is true to its own method, it acknowledges that any theory is the best approximation of reality based on the known data.  New data will mean that the theory will be subject to change.  However, because scientists are human, change does not come easy.  Such is the case with Darwin’s notion of the tree of life – which is not totally supported by discoveries in DNA and RNA.  Nevertheless some scientists have tried to hold on and defend the notion of the tree of life despite the evidence against it.

“The tree of life is being politely buried, we all know that,” he says. “What’s less accepted is that our whole fundamental view of biology needs to change.” Biology is vastly more complex than we thought, he says, and facing up to this complexity will be as scary as the conceptual upheavals physicists had to take on board in the early 20th century.

If he is right, the tree concept could become biology’s equivalent of Newtonian mechanics: revolutionary and hugely successful in its time, but ultimately too simplistic to deal with the messy real world. “The tree of life was useful,” says Bapteste. “It helped us to understand that evolution was real. But now we know more about evolution, it’s time to move on.”

The story of Darwin’s Tree of Life idea shows that science is capable of change if hard scientific evidence is presented.  The change does not come easy especially when ideas are deeply rooted in the underlying assumptions of evolution.    As Thomas Kuhn argued change in paradigm doesn’t really occur because of the evidence offered, but rather occurs only as adherents to the old way die off or disappear. 

Darwin’s Tree of Life also becomes a paradigm for those who hope to discredit the randomness of evolutionary theory displacing it with the more teleological views of intelligent design.  The bottom line is do the science – you may never change the minds of the staunchest supporters of evolution, but if your ideas are true and worthy of scientific merit and can withstand the test of the scientific method, the adherents of atheistic evolution will disappear.  However if evolution has convincing arguments, sound logic and compelling evidence, it will continue to hold the loyalty of scientists who rely on the scientific method to support their beliefs.

Just the Facts – or at Least some Statistics

I happened across a few statistics regarding religion and America which I will pass along.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released in February of 2008 the details of its study based upon the answers of over 35,000 Americans surveyed.  Orthodox Christianity which represents a tiny minority of Americans did show up in the survey.   According to the Pew research about .6% of Americans identify themselves as Orthodox Christians.   This translates into approximately 1,800,000 people in the U.S. who call themselves Orthodox Christian.  Approximately as many people in the U.S. identify themselves as Muslim as identify themselves as Orthodox Christian.  There are fewer Orthodox Christians in America than Jehovah Witnesses or Buddhists according to this study.  There are about 3 times more Jews or Mormons in the U.S. than Orthodox Christians.   Compared to the national average of all religious traditions covered in the Pew research, the Orthodox tend to be better educated and wealthier than the average church attendee in America.

There also is a great amount of movement of people from one religious tradition to another.  About 28% of those surveyed say they have left the faith they grew up with and now embrace different religious ideas (this does not include those who have switched from one Protestant denomination to another – if that number is included about 4 in 10 American adults belong to a different religious tradition than they grew up with).   Among the Orthodox in the study, about the same number of people joined Orthodoxy as defected from the Church.     

A little over 16% of those surveyed consider themselves independent of any religious tradition.

Last November’s Presidential election was heralded by some as a major shift in thinking among American Christians – supposedly demonstrated by the election of Democrat Barack Obama.  But in a 26 January 2009 NEWSWEEK article the statistics do not bear out this major change in how religion is affecting political affiliation – or as the article, “Faith Beyond His Father’s”, notes the picture is much more complicated than simplistic analysis indicates.  Among Evangelicals ages 18-29, about 33% voted for Obama while in the previous election only 16% of this demographic group voted for Kerry.  But the study showed that among older Evangelicals only 25% voted for Obama while in 2004 nearly 33% voted for Kerry.  The overall totals showed 24% of Evangelicals voting with Obama in 2008, while 21% voted for Kerry in 2004, which is considered a statistically insignificant shift in voting pattern.  This change in voting might have nothing to do with changes in thinking among Evangelicals, it could very well be that Evangelicals felt more negative toward the unpopular President Bush, not changing their basic political beliefs, but voting against the status quo.  Approximately the same percentage of young Evangelicals as their elders oppose abortion – 70%, so age does not seem to be a factor on that issue.  However on the issue of gay marriage, among Evangelicals over age 30, only 9% support gay marriage, while 26% of white Evangelicals ages 18-29 give a favorable nod to allowing gay marriage.  That does represent a statistically significant difference in attitude among the younger Evangelicals.

In Praise of St. Paul

While St. Paul’s importance to all of Christianity today cannot be denied, we might wonder how St. Paul understood his own role and calling in the life of the Church.  Biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright has written extensively on the scripture attributed to St. Paul, Apostle to the Nations.  Bishop Wright offers the following summary based upon St. Paul’s own words of how Paul envisioned his role in the unfolding history of God’s plan and God’s people:

paulwright1Paul, too, believed himself to have a special, unique role within the overall purposes of Israel’s God, the world’s creator; and that role was precisely not to bring Israel’s history to is climax – that had been done in the death and resurrection of the Messiah – but rather to perform the next unique task within an implicit apocalyptic timetable, namely to call the nations, urgently, to loyal submission to the one who had now been enthroned as Lord of the world.  Paul believe that it was his task to call into being, by proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the worldwide community in which ethnic division would be abolished and a new family created as a sign to the watching world that Jesus was its rightful Lord and that new creation had been launched and would one day come to full flower.   (PAUL IN FRESH PERSPECTIVE

From Vespers honoring St. Paul the Apostle, we Orthodox sing this verse:

Today we celebrate your memory, O Apostle Paul, and bless your struggles for Christ, your many pains and much labor. You were sent as a sun to us who were sitting in the darkness and shadow of delusion. You preached the Gospel of peace and redemption from our vanities. We who are unworthy were shown to be worthy by your godly preaching and became children of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Church boasts in you as her unbreakable foundation. O great Apostle and wise teacher, all the world is made beautiful by your teaching! Intercede with the Lord to deliver us from every heresy.

St. Paul the Theologian

paul41Yesterday, January 25, was in the Roman Catholic Church the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul;   pity, but there is no such equivalent Feast in the Orthodox Church.  If I had to guess, I would say that the Feast of St. Paul’s Conversion historically only emerged in the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, and so is relatively speaking a new feast in their church.

Be that as it may, since St. Paul is the Patron Saint of our parish in Dayton, we have been taking note of the Year of St. Paul proclaimed by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in honor of the Apostle to the Nation’s 2000th Birthday.  Yesterday, we did take note of the Feast of St. Paul’s Conversion and also the 2000th anniversary of his birth.

In the Acts 9:1-22 version of St. Paul’s conversion there is a most amazing thing that happens to Saul of Tarsus (Paul’s pre-Christian name) immediately after he is cured of his blindness and is baptized:

“And in the synagogues immediately he proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.'”

What Paul proclaimed is truly amazing, for he does not first claim that Jesus is the Messiah, but rather than Jesus is “the Son of God.”  This is the only instance in the Acts of the Apostles where the phrase, “son of God” occurs.  Otherwise Jesus is usually called “Christ” or “the Christ.” 

St. Paul’s proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God gives us a pretty good idea as to how thorough and deep his conversion was.  From the very beginning of his conversion and ministry Paul understood that the truth about Jesus is not merely that he is the messiah, but that even more importantly and primarily Jesus is the Son of God.   This is why St. Paul’s conversion was so complete – he realized that God in Christ had done something so totally new and unexpected as to have caused blindness among the Jews as to His plan for salvation. The theological implication of the identity of Jesus was immediately evident to St. Paul which is what caused such spiritual dissonance within his heart as to make him temporarily go blind.  He was healed of this blindness which also gave him voice to proclaim the truth about Christ.

It is in this proclamation of St. Paul that he reveals himself as not merely an Apostle but also a Theologian.   As John Behr writes in the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press anthology, THINKING THROUGH FAITH,  “Rather than speaking about God, ‘theology’ was, more specifically, the affirmation of the divinity of the crucified and exalted Lord, Jesus Christ.”   To theologize, Behr says, is to speak of Christ as God. 

“Christian theology proceeds, then, by reflecting upon the crucified and risen Christ understood through the thinkingthroughfaithmedium of the Scriptures. … Christian theology is intrinsically confessional and exegetical.  It is confessional in the sense that it does not affirm a mere ‘historical’ statement, for instance, that Jesus ‘was crucified under Pontius Pilate-something that anyone on hand that day could have verified.  Instead, a ‘theological’ statement affirms that the one who was crucified is the Son of God.  This is a confession of faith.  This confession, moreover, is exegetical, for the disciples were able to confess this only once the risen Christ had opened the Scriptures to them.”

St. Paul’s conversion was an encounter with Christ which opened to Paul the Scriptures, which he had attempted so zealously to live by rigidly keeping Torah.  In his encounter with Christ, Paul’s entire worldview is changed, a true paradigmatic shift, as in Christ St. Paul realizes the Word of God is theology not ritualism.

It is not accidental that St. Mark who through his Gospel answers the question, “Who is Jesus?” begins his work with his thesis statement:  “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”  (Mark 1:1).   Mark who wrote his Gospel a number of years after the conversion of St. Paul, begins his proclamation exactly where St. Paul did – in theologizing; Jesus is the Son of God.

Soil and Soul

Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky (d. 1936) contrasting the human nature originally created by God and human nature as saved by Christ wrote:

Christ’s life which He gave to the Church and which flows into the soul of each individual is different.  This instilling of a new nature (Grace) into the soul of every Christian is a more complex phenomenon.  It does not come to pass so spontaneously as the development of the human personality of the innocent Adam on the fresh soil of human nature, but first of  all through a conscious assimilation of Christ’s life or of Christianity; and then also through a mysterious penetration of the newly grace-filled nature of the Church into our personality.”  (THE MORAL IDEA OF THE MAIN DOGMAS OF THE FAITH)

He comments on Genesis 2 which offers the second creation story of Genesis.  In verse 7 we read:

then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”

As Metropolitan Antony notes above, when God breathes His Breath/Spirit into the dust/soil, spontaneously not only a soul (the “living creature” of the ESV Bible is how they translate what in Greek is “psyche” – soul), not only a human person, but human nature as well comes into existence.   Without any resistance or suffering, human life begins to exist in its fullness.   God’s Word is sufficient for creating life, animating the soil so that it becomes a living creature.

Metropolitan Antony goes on to write:

On the other hand, everyone knows the Lord’s parable about the unconscious and secret growth of the grace-filled seed of new nature in the soul of a believer.”

Here the Metropolitan references Jesus’ parable recorded in Mark 4:26-28:

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”

Metropolitan Antony’s comments also made me think of Christ’s Parable of the Sower of Good Seed in Luke 8:11,15 :

“The seed is the word of God. … As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”

The “soil” which each one of us is, has become different as a result of sin.  What God animated with His Breath in the beginning, now has a mind of its own.  And now it is not spontaneously that God’s Word works on the soil.  For now the soil is not immediately transformed and transfigured by the Word of God; rather, the Word enters the “soil” like a seed, but whether it takes root depends on the soil, and how the soil is able to receive the Word and bring it to fruition.

The soil is still capable of bearing the seed and the seed can bear fruit in the soil.  And note it takes only the tiniest seed of God’s Word to produce great results.

God put the original “Adam”, the man of soil, into the Garden of Delight, to work the soil and to bring forth fruit.  But humanity rebelled against God and against its own humus – human beginnings.  And now not only must humans work the earth by the sweat of the brow, but also humans must work their own hearts to make it receptive to God’s Word and capable of bringing forth spiritual fruit. 

The Christian life consists exactly in working the soil of the garden of our hearts – through prayer, fasting, self denial, love, mercy, forgiveness and repentance.  This is the toil of Christians.  What occurred naturally and spontaneously in the beginning, now requires our cooperation.  We must work together with God for our salvation.  The Word of God alone is not enough – the heart must become the good soil willing to allow the Word to germinate, sprout, take root and bring forth the fruit which is the result of Divine and human synergy.theotokos21

A “final” comment – it is because God impresses His image and likeness on the soil which becomes a human person, the soil is not inanimate, but becomes life bearing, sacramental, holy.   It is why we treat even the dead body with respect, for though we recognize the body will return to the dust from which it came, that “soil” bears not only God’s image but also through the Christian life bears union with God.  The “soil” transfigured by God bears the image of God and is personified, and thus is a holy icon.

The Conversion of St. Paul

paul3This Sunday, January 25, our parish joins with all those keeping the Year of St. Paul (celebrating the 2000th Birthday of our Parish Patron Saint) by remembering the Conversion of St. Paul to Christianity.   The Conversion of St. Paul is a Feast Day in the Roman Catholic Church.  Our parish is honoring our Patron Saint by remembering this event as well.   The Year of St. Paul was declared jointly by the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and Pope Benedict of Rome and runs from 29 June 2008- 29 June 2009.   All Christians – Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant are indebted to St. Paul the Apostle to the Nations for receiving the Gospel.  In the 4th Century, St. John Chrysostom wrote regarding the conversion of St. Paul, that Apostle to the nations:

The blessed Paul, the one who brought us together today, and illuminated the world, this man was blinded at the time of his call. But his blinding has become the enlightenment of the world! For since he saw badly, God rightly blinded him, so that he might see again usefully. In that one stroke God both provided Paul a proof of his own power, and prefigured his future in suffering. In this way God taught him the manner in which the gospel was to be preached: that it was necessary for Paul to cast off all that was his own, shut his eyes and follow him everywhere…In fact, it is not possible to see again rightly if one has not formerly been well blinded, cast off the reasonings that were troubling him, and turned completely to the faith. But let no one on hearing these things think that this call was a matter of compulsion, for he was able to return again to the way from which he had come. Indeed many, after seeing other, greater marvels, turned back again…But not Paul. He, after gazing upon the undefiled light, intensified his course and flew toward heaven.  And if you want to know the  reason he was blinded, listen to him saying, “For you have heard about my behavior then in Judaism, that I was persecuting the church to the highest degree and trying to lay it waste, and I was advancing in Judaism above many of the peers in my race, being exceedingly zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal 1:13-14).  Since, therefore, Paul was so severe and heavenlytrumpetunapproachable, he stood in need of a bit that was even more severe, lest, led by the strength of his will, he might misunderstand what was said. That is why, forestalling Paul’s mania, God first calms the waves of his ferocious wrath by blinding, and then speaks to him. In this way he demonstrates the unapproachability of his wisdom, and the superiority of his knowledge. God did this so that Paul might learn who it was he was fighting against-a God whom he could not withstand, not only in punishments, but even in kindnesses. For darkness did not blind Paul, but the superabundance of light cast him into darkness.  (Margaret Mitchell, The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation)

Citizen Scientists, Amateur Astronomers and the Power of the Web

In my blog Post-modernism:  A Challenge to Science? I raised a question about the claim that we are transitioning as a society from a Modernism to Post-Modernism way of seeing the world.  Before the Age of Modernism Western thinking was characterized by a belief that there is an objective way of seeing the world – thus there are right and wrong ways of seeing things.  The religious debates between Catholicism and Protestantism were embedded in a thinking that said one side had to be right and the other wrong.  The same kind of thinking occurred in the debates between science and religion that raged during and after the 18th Century Enlightenment.   The thinking was very black and white, either or. 

The claim is that the move to Post-modernism is a paradigm shift along the lines of Thomas Kuhn‘s writings.  Post-modernism is a worldview which challenges notions of right and wrong because it does not accept there is anything like an objective point of view.  Thus right and wrong is always determined from some point of view but no one can establish that their point of view is more correct than some other point of view.  Thus in Post-modern thinking we each experience a collision of points of view, but anyone of them is as valid as any other point of view.  Thus good and evil are often mixed and varied in post-modern art, media or entertainment.  Characters are presented as being a mixture of good and bad, doing good for bad reasons or doing bad which has good effect for some.  I often think if you saw the movie CRASH you may not know what post-modernism is but you have seen the movie.  The lives of the characters intersect and crisscross in unplanned yet constant ways; they literally bump into each other without having any sense of their connections to one another.  Only the movie viewer, outside of the frame of reference of these character’s lives, has any sense of how their lives are related, additionally the movie viewer sees each character in all their moral ambiguity. 

If indeed we are moving into a paradigmatic shift as a culture, this should somehow be visible not only in theology or literature but also in science – our way of seeing the world, if it is really changing will change even the way we understand science.   To some extent the rise of quantum mechanics has challenged a scientific view that there is only one way to see and understand the universe.  The universe has proven itself to be stranger than imagined, to have elements of uncertainty in it (there are things we cannot know), to behave in counterintuitive ways, to anticipate what the scientific observer is thinking or doing, to act more like an organism than like inanimate matter.

And yet science has also in some of its thinking held tenaciously to that pre-Modernist worldview that there is only one way of seeing the world and all facts must somehow fit this one way.  In a certain sense science wants to give the image that it is a monolith which cannot be cracked as it has an infallible way of seeing the world.

This is why I found Biologist Aaron Hirst’s Opinion piece in the 21 January 2009 NY TIMES entitled A New Kind of Big Science  to be interesting.  Hirst says that science has been moving ever toward a centralization where fewer people control the information and research done.  But he is troubled by this direction where scientific truth is controlled by the few.  “Centralization is a way to extend scientists’ reach.  But of course, there are also some drawbacks. There’s something disturbingly hierarchical about the new architecture of the scientific community”.

A concern over the “disturbingly hierarchical” sounds very much like the challenge that Post-modernism sounds to religion and philosophy.  It says there is not just one way of seeing the world, and that the many other possible ways should be encouraged.  Hirst sees a new way of doing science emerging:

There is another way to extend our scientific reach, and I believe it can also restore some of what is lost in the process of centralization. It has been called Citizen Science, and it involves the enlistment of large numbers of relatively untrained individuals in the collection of scientific data.

Hirst suggests that rather than “science” controlling all scientific research, that by encouraging all citizens to participate in science – say for example in biology that new data and information can be gathered by any citizen scientist.  Rather than gathering only that data which fits a current theory or which is part of well funded research, if many citizens were gathering biological data on anything and everything – people just observing and recording what they observe – new ideas might emerge from this ‘unexpected data.’   It may be that the data will begin to show patterns where scientists weren’t even thinking of looking, or it might add to knowledge or challenge existing theories.  This decentralized form of science would fit well into the world of knowledge which the World Wide Web is making available and possible to everyone with access to the Web.   It is a form of thinking encouraged by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom in THE STARFISH AND THE SPIDER: THE UNSTOPPABLE POWER OF LEARLESS ORGANIZATIONS.   It unleashes the power of the Web – no longer would research have to be guided by the well funded few, for anyone could begin to look for data and at the data being recorded by the citizen scientists to look for patterns never before noticed in order to interpret the data.   Thus information and knowledge would not be centralized and controlled by the few but would be the property of humankind, accessible to all.    And scientific research would be freed from depending on the pre-approved and favored theories of the select few, for the data would be available for all to consider, and these citizen scientists and amateur sleuths would have their own shot at making discoveries – as has happened often in astronomy where amateur astronomers train their telescope at the skies and record things never before noticed, to some extent because no centralized scientific authority is telling them how to think, where to look, what to look at, or how to interpret what they see.