Having read Hannah Arendt’s book about the trial in Jerusalem in 1961 of Adolph Eichmann, the chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, Merton was inspired to write an essay: “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann.” Merton wrote:
One of the most disturbing facts to come out in the Eichmann trial was that a psychiatrist examined him and pronounced him perfectly sane…. [Eichmann’s job] happened to be the supervision of mass murder. He was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state…. Apparently he slept well. He had a good appetite….
The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.
It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missile, and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared. What makes us so sure, after all, that the danger comes from a psychotic getting into a position to fire the first shot in a nuclear war? Psychotics will be suspect. The sane ones will keep them far from the button. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will he obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command. And because of their sanity they will have no qualms at all. When the missiles take off, then, it will be no mistake. We can no longer assume that because a man is “sane” he is therefore in his “right mind.”
The whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless. A man can be “sane” in the limited sense that he is not impeded by disordered emotions from acting in a cool, orderly tier, according to the needs and dictates of the social situation in which he finds himself. He can be perfectly “adjusted.” God knows, perhaps such people can be perfectly adjusted even in hell itself.
And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own? (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, pp 45-49)
“In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ gave Himself, His God-man’s Body, to the world, or rather, He united the world with Himself in the communion with his God-man’s Body. He made it into Godmanhood. And it would sound almost blasphemous if He had wanted to isolate some inner, deep Christ who remained alien to this God-man’s sacrifice. Christ’s love does not know how to measure and divide, does not know how to spare itself. Neither did Christ teach the apostles to be sparing and cautious in love – and He could not have taught them that, because He included them into the Body of Christ – and thereby gave them up to be immolated for the world. Here we need only learn and draw conclusions. It might be said paradoxically that in the sense of giving Himself to the world, Christ was the most worldly of all the sons of Adam. But we already know that what is of the world does not give itself to the world.” (Mother Maria Skobtsova, Essential Writings, pgs. 78-79)
This is the conclusion to the blog Well Reasoned Words. In that blog we looked at a scientist’s view of why science and reason are essential to any political debate or national policy decision.
The second essay which I think is a worthy read appeared in the 25 September 2011 New York Times Opinionator section: ‘Quixote,’ Colbert and the Reality of Fiction written by William Egginton. Egginton is responding to another essay which was touting scientific knowledge as the only way to know anything.
“In his contribution to The Stone last week, Alex Rosenberg posed a defense of naturalism — ‘the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge’ — at the expense of other theoretical endeavors such as, notably, literary theory. To the question of ‘whether disciplines like literary theory provide real understanding,’ Professor Rosenberg’s answer is as unequivocal as it is withering: just like fiction, literary theory can be ‘fun,’ but neither one qualifies as ‘knowledge.’”
Egginton takes total exception to Rosenberg’s interpretation of scientific materialism and says literature including fiction does give us real knowledge about what it is to be human:
“Does their fictional art not offer insights into human nature as illuminating as many of those the physical sciences have produced?
As a literary theorist, I suppose I could take umbrage at the claim that my own discipline, while fun, doesn’t rise to the level of knowledge. But what I’d actually like to argue goes a little further. Not only can literary theory (along with art criticism, sociology, and yes, non-naturalistic philosophy) produce knowledge of an important and even fundamental nature, but fiction itself, so breezily dismissed in Professor Rosenberg’s assertions, has played a profound role in creating the very idea of reality that naturalism seeks to describe.”
Egginton offers a point with which many humans, not just theistic ones: you might be able to define the exact chemical composition of a human being through science, but this still will not tell you what it is to be human. Insights into being human and human beings is real knowledge and an important part of what knowledge humans are capable of attaining beyond what science can say.
You can read Egginton’s comments which are a wonderful essay which ties in Cervantes and Stephen Colbert as part of the human effort to reveal truth and knowledge. Egginton cites Colbert’s portrayal of then President George W Bush as evidence of fiction giving us knowledge:
“’The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady,’ Colbert said, standing in front of the president of the United States. ‘You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.’ Colbert’s routine mocked the administration’s slippery relation to truth (what happened Tuesday), and identified the president’s famous ‘resolution’ as the character trait that the administration relied on to sell their version of reality.”
We do come to get insight into our human existence from sources other than science. And Egginton argues that we need fiction, irony, and humor to really gain insight into ourselves.
“As Cervantes realized in the context of the newly born mass culture of the Catholic, imperial, Spanish state, irony expertly wielded is the best defense against the manipulation of truth by the media. Its effect was and still is to remind its audience that we are all active participants in the creation and support of a fictional world that is always in danger of being sold to us as reality.”
I read two essays this past week whose well reasoned arguments impressed me. Though the two articles are not related, and not exactly addressing the same point, in a broader sense are on opposite sides of a larger debate regarding the role of religion/philosophy on the one side and science on the other in shaping our thinking on major issues.
Lisa Randall writing in the 3 October 2011 issue of TIME, How Science Can Lead the Way , defends the role of science in shaping public policy in dealing with subjects like climate change and warns that following ‘faith based’ ideas while rejecting real science places the entire nation at risk for making very bad policy with seriously detrimental consequences. As she argues, empirically based logic allows us to test ideas and improve them and thus is a more reasonable way to determine national policies. Randall characterizes the difference between science and revealed religion as:
“Logic tries to resolve paradoxes, whereas much of religious thought thrives on them. Adherents who want to accept both religious influences on the world and scientific explanations for its workings are obliged to confront the chasm between tangible effects and unseen, imperceptible influences that is unbridgeable by logical thought. They have no choice but to admit the inconsistency–or simply overlook the contradiction.”
First, while she believes religious thought thrives on paradoxes, I would say that is true only for a small portion of believers. It is true that a number of us are awed by mystery and that it feeds a certain spirituality. I would say though that for many believers paradoxes are a threat to their faith as they imagine that religion has to do with fundamental facts not with paradoxical mysteries. For my part, I do spiritually thrive in the world of religious paradox, and I am drawn to the science of uncertainty. Both speak to me of God and the limits of human rationality.
Randall does point out exactly the problem facing believers who also are comfortable with the work of science: we have to deal with the inconsistencies in world view or overlook the contradictions between faith and reason. It is an apt description of what people of faith are sometimes faced with. Probably she overestimates how often that contradiction rises to the level of conscious decision making (not to mention decisions of conscience!). I think many believers accept the realm of scientific knowledge and assume faith and reason are not contradictory. Cognitive dissonance doesn’t occur mostly because we don’t think through the issues completely. However, for much of one’s daily life this ignoring the contradiction has no major impact – kind of like the same way in which Newtonian/classical physics was good enough to get a man to the moon but does not come close to accounting for the quantum world. Randall writes:
“In fact, an important part of science is understanding uncertainty. When scientists say we know something, we mean we have tested our ideas with a degree of accuracy over a range of scales. Scientists also address the limitations of their theories and define and try to extend the range of applicability. When the method is applied properly, the right results emerge over time.”
I wonder about her claim that “Scientists all address the limitations of their theories”. For most scientists that may be true. But it is also well known today that a number of evolutionary and atheistic scientists believe they can explain everything about humans through genetic science – there are no limits to what science can do. That is what causes problems for people of faith. These are issues raised in the recent book by James Le Fanu Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.
To understand science, Randall says you must understand that it deals with uncertainty. This is a truth that is not completely understood by many believers. Believers often imagine a world in which there are absolute facts and no uncertainty. For them the Bible is either absolutely literally true or of no value whatsoever. That is how they read the Bible and that is how they imagine science views the world. But science especially since the rise of quantum mechanics in the 20th Century deals much more in scales of probability. Many things can be predicted with great scientific accuracy, but there is a degree of uncertainty because of the number of factors that can effect events. Indeterminacy is a fact of physics today. Thus science can be fairly certain of some of its ideas, and that degree of certainty has allowed for much of the technology which benefits us today. It does however also admit to a certain level of uncertainty.
I would only comment that it is this degree of uncertainty, no matter how microscopically small, which should allow believers to realize that science is not always opposed to faith. The worldviews of science and religion share a fascination with mystery and uncertainty. Faith in God is not hurt by the facts, by truth, or by the laws of nature. However, ideologists often hold to ideas despite the facts. This can be as true as ‘faithists’ as of atheists.
In the next blog we will look at an essay that says there are ways to real knowledge from fields other than science.
“I said then, and would say the same now, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are revealed in community. As such, they are for all the community, and so one gift does not quench the other, even when, as happens often, they are opposite. So the analytical does not quench the emotional, the gift of the spiritual elder does not contradict that of the psychologist, the gift of ecstasy does not stand in disharmony with that of calm.” (Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, A Life Together, pg. 15)
2 Corinthians 4:6 – “It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (St. Paul)
Saint John of Kronstadt wrote:
“Sometimes in the lives of pious Christians there are hours when God seems to have entirely abandoned them – hours of the power of darkness; and then the man from the depth of his heart cries unto God: ‘Why have You turned Your face from me, You the everlasting Light? For a strange darkness has covered me, the darkness of the accursed evil Satan, and has obscured all my soul. It is very grievous for the soul to be in his torturing darkness, which gives a presentiment of the torments and darkness of hell. Turn me, O Saviour, to the light of Your commandments and make straight my spiritual way, I fervently pray You.’ “ (My Life in Christ, pg.41)
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
St. Mark the Ascetic writes:
“If Peter had not failed to catch anything during the night’s fishing (cf. Luke 5:5), he would not have caught anything during the day. And if Paul had not suffered physical blindness (cf. Acts 9:8), he would not have been given spiritual sight. And if Stephen had not been slandered as a blasphemer, he would not have seen the heavens opened and have looked on God (cf. Acts 6:15; 7:56).” (St. Mark the Ascetic in The Philokalia, Volume One, pg. 142-143)
There are moments in life when we have nothing – nothing to hold on to, nothing to show for our efforts, nothing for which to look forward, nothing to hope in or believe in or trust. It is in those moments of “nothing”, when the world has nothing to offer, that we become open to life beyond this world: something greater than my self, to the possibility that the world or even the entire created universe in and of itself is not sufficient for human aspiration. We become open to the possibility of God who is not limited to or by the created order. This realization can become for us a time of hope and faith – that nothing is not all there is.
Barna notes that more Americans now count themselves among the unchurched than did in 1991 – 37% today vs. 24% then. The trend is not that fewer Americans consider themselves Christian, it’s that they no longer consider church membership essential to being a Christian. To some extent it is Americans living out their extreme individualistic attitudes.
“We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs — our clothing, our food, our education,” he says. Now it’s our religion.
I commented on this same idea in Which Christ do We Believe In? referring to the movie Talladega Nights, in which every character has their own personal Jesus. No longer are we Christ’s disciples conforming ourselves to His teachings, now we shape Jesus into whatever we want or need Him to be. Christianity is not a revealed truth but a putty whose plasticity we shape to fit our personal opinions. For a growing number of Americans Christianity maybe informational but certainly is not formational. In fact now the attitude is we are to form Christianity into whatever we want it to be. No longer is there the Lordship of Christ, what remains is how we exert our lordship over Christ to make Him conform to what we need from Him and His Church. Barna reports:
When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines, defined by the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith, only 7% of those surveyed qualified.
Barna laments, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'”
Of course this trend isn’t something totally new. To some extent the very reason the American revolutionaries hung together was that following the ideals of the Enlightenment, they placed denominational differences as unimportant as versus the cause of a united American front against England. The particular beliefs of each denomination were made relative and unimportant. People could accept a general notion that they were all Americans, believers, even Christians as the bond which held them together as long as what they actually believed (their theology) was marginalized. It is a great compromise that Americans made in order for America to emerge. It is similar to the compromise the founding fathers made regarding slavery – ignore it because the issue was potentially too divisive.
It may be that the very partisanship which now paralyzes politics in America is the same issue: all the compromises, looking askance, winking and nodding, knowing smiles, avoidance and all other ways we used to pretend we were a united people no longer work as the glue to hold us together. The differences are emerging and we realize we are not such a united people after all. There are huge theological differences and diversities within the family of beliefs known as Christianity.
And since the differences are real, and since we have not created any open forums in which theological or philosophical differences can be discussed, people personalize religion and create their own. This of course is not going to help keep the nation united. It may for some mean the issue cannot be discussed since there is no point of agreement, but underneath the fissures in basic assumptions by Americans are widening. (In American politics we never seem to have an exchange of ideas, just mutual hurling of false accusations against each other in negative ad campaigns).
Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote:
“The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own,” he says. And all this rampant individualism also fosters “hostility toward organized groups — government, industry, even organized religion.”
When any one church makes its appeal to be “we are different” from all the rest and that all the rest are wrong and we alone are right, it actually feeds the problem. For that church begins to attract those people whose “designer religion” ideas say I want a church just like that. It is the individual which now affirms the “truthiness” of the church. The church appeals to the most individualistic thinkers who are happy to discover a church which conforms to their beliefs. It is the heart of sectarianism and the mind of cults.
The countervailing need is for Christians/ Christianity/ the Church to understand the cosmic nature of its truth. “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) – not just individuals, believers, the super-righteous, Christians, or Americans. The Christian message is for the entire cosmos. The Christian message is universal, a message for every single human being on the planet. The Christian message is meant to help us engage the world, not flee from it. Our task is to be a light to the world, not the fire that destroys everything in its path. It is in this universal as versus individualistic understanding that Christianity invites people to become part of the Body of Christ – become part of something greater than one’s self. Become part of something whose unifying bond is love, not alienating individualism.
None of this means people are to mindlessly believe and live a life of warm fuzzies. All of it demands great intellectual exploration and discovery. Are the claims of Christianity true? How are we to live if they are? What does it say about what it means to be human? What is the human role in and responsibility for the world? For one another? How do we deal with our differences – in perspective, in theology, in ethics, in science?
The test of love and faith is whether we can in fact discuss our theological differences and can overcome them in Christ. “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said (Mark 8:34). The embrace of extreme individualistic thinking is in many ways a rejection of the love which Christ lived and was the very basis of His willingness to die on the Cross. The opposite of the (self sacrificing) love of Christ is the self love of individualism.
I began after a several year lapse to get on the elliptical machine for a little exercise. I’m hoping mentioning that in this blog will embarrass me to keep at it. While I’m on the machine I’m exercising my mind by listening to The Teaching Company’s lecture series, Quantum Mechanics: The Physics of the Microscopic World taught by Professor Benjamin Schumacher.
I find physics fascinating now in a way I didn’t when I was in college. Unfortunately now the math is beyond me since I haven’t used such math in the last 35 years. But I can follow the ideas being presented – at least as long as there is not a test requiring me to demonstrate my command of the topic!
I’ve come to realize Planck’s constant is very important to physics, though what exactly it is escapes me. Sometimes I remember vaguely what it is, but then in some new equation I am told the value is always greater than or equal to Planck’s constant and I can’t remember what it is to know why that is significant. Then when I look up what Planck’s constant is and try to grasp the concept again, I can’t remember why it is significant for the equation I just learned about. The value is equal to or greater than Planck’s constant, but I have no idea why that is significant. No matter (excuse the pun).
It is the result of having an aging brain. The brain is not the same as the mind, but that is another discussion. For this blog, all the engineers out there can rest assured that I won’t be vying for their jobs.
Anyway, two things struck me in the last lecture I listened to.
1) Due to the intellectual path that physics followed there came to be some ideas in physics that were thought to be incompatible: the wave and the particle. Thus at one point it was thought that light had to behave like a wave and couldn’t behave like a particle. But then Quantum Mechanics came along and there was a realization that the world is much different than had once been imagined. Light and matter both exhibit wave and particle characteristics (the wave-particle duality). For those steeped in traditional Newtonian physics this created a problem – cognitive dissonance – and a lot of debate and discussion among physicists. But as I listened to the lecture, it struck me that “but of course both light and matter share wave and particle characteristics, they both originated from the same source. In terms of physics, that is the “Big Bang.” For theists, the source is God, but in any case at the heart of all of physical creation there is a common beginning, and that is what Quantum Mechanics has discovered. All things – light, matter, space and time originated from that same primal source. So but of course their existence and relationships can be described mathematically, and of course they all share at some primal level these same characteristics. It is the underlying “thing” what ties the entire universe together.
2) Schumaker told a story which has implications for theologians as well. As Quantum Mechanics began to show that there is at the microscopic level an unpredictability or indeterminacy to the universe, Albert Einstein became increasingly skeptical. Einstein was a determinist believing that the bottom line of the physical universe is that all things follow a causal relationship – each thing predictable follows from its preceding thing. The possibility of uncertainty in the universe led Einstein to skeptically quip, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” This, according to Schumacker, led to Einstein’s protagonist, Niels Bohr responding: “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.”
Lots of people seem to think they can tell God what to do: whom to forgive, whom to love, how to treat people we don’t like. If God is the Lord, He will reveal what He is doing no matter whether it agrees with our opinion of Him or not.
In the blog, My “O Lord” Prayers: A Story”, I mentioned how I rediscovered some prayers I copied down 40+ years ago as a teenager in a period in which I felt very drawn to God. I published some of those prayers in the previous blog, My “O Lord!” Prayers (A). What follows are the rest of the prayers I recorded many years ago.
O Lord, show me Your glory because You love Your creature; but also give me tears and the power to thank You. To You belongs glory in heaven and on earth, but for me, I must weep for my sins.
O Lord, the cares of this world overshadow our minds, and we are not able to comprehend the fullness of Your love. Enlighten us.
O Lord, grant all the people of the earth to know how greatly You love us, and to know the wondrous life You prepare for those who believe in You.
O Lord, teach us by Your Holy Spirit to be obedient and sober.
O Lord, You know how weak and sinful I am. Help me to endure my sufferings and to thank You for Your goodness.
O Lord, grant peace to Your people.
O Lord, bestow Your Holy Spirit on Your servants, that our hearts may be kindled by Your love, and that our feet be kept on the path of truth and goodness.
O merciful Lord, I pray to You: let all mankind, from the beginning to the end of time come to know You, that You are good and merciful, that all nations may rejoice in Your peace and behold the light of Your countenance. Your gaze is tranquil and meek, and draws the soul to You.