Lent: The Season of Love

“Prayer and fasting should in their turn be accompanied by almsgiving – by love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness. Eight days before the opening of the Lenten fast, on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the appointed Gospel is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25: 31-46), reminding us that the criterion in the coming judgment will not be the strictness of our fasting but the amount of help that we have given to those in need. In the words of Triodion:

Knowing the commandments of the Lords, let this be our way of life:

Let us feed the hungry, let us give the thirsty drink,

Let us clothe the naked, let us welcome strangers,

Let us visit those in prison and the sick.

Then the Judge of all the earth will say even to us:

‘Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.’”

(The Lenten Triodion, pg. 19)

St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope (III)

This is the 3rd blog in this series.  The first blog is  St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope and the previous blog is St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope (II).

In the previous blogs we saw that St. John of Damascus incorporated the science of his day into his book on dogmatic theology!   He accepted from ancient non-Christian philosophers many scientific ideas.  He saw the entire cosmos as something we can try to understand, though in his day the lack of technology made exploring the cosmos virtually impossible.  But his use of science and effort to understand the universe lead me to think he would have welcomed the science of our day, had he lived in the 21st Century.   He was comfortable acknowledging there are some things about the universe which we cannot know and which the Bible does not give us decisive information.

My interest in St. John of Damascus’ scientific ideas is mostly for its historical value.  I am impressed at his scientific knowledge considering all of the technological and philosophical limitations of his time.  But I don’t read St. John’s 8th Century thinking to learn science, just as I don’t read the Bible to learn science either.  St. John’s writings are important for their theology not their science.  The Bible offers us theology and theological anthropology, which for believers is the real significance of these texts.  I don’t consult the Bible or St. John Damascene if I want to understand the nature of the empirical cosmos – to understand it in modern scientific terms.  For neither in the 8th Century nor in biblical times did any of the authors have modern scientific knowledge nor a modern scientific paradigm in which to see the universe nor the technology to do so (and the technology is necessary for our modern understanding of the physical universe).

I read with interest two recent news stories on the topic of the Big Bang and the beginning of the universe:  Universe as an Infant: Fatter Than Expected and Kind of Lumpy  by Dennis Overbye and Big Bang’s afterglow reveals older universe by Lena H. Sun and Brian Vastag.  Both accounts are reporting on the same information being gathered by scientists through the Planck satellite telescope which was launched in 2009 and has been used to investigate some of the mysteries in the cosmos which only new technology can reveal to us.

Universe Microwave2

Among the items which Sun and Vastag report in the Washington Post:

“The images captured by a space telescope show the universe is 13.8 billion years old, 100 million years older than previously estimated. The results also reinforce a key theory scientists have about how the universe was formed, exploding from subatomic size to its current expanse in what one scientist described as ‘one nano-nano-nano-nano second after the Big Bang.’”

“Using the first 15 months of data from the telescope, scientists created an all-sky picture of the afterglow — light imprinted on the sky when the universe was just a baby, about 370,000 years old. NASA contributed technology, and U.S., European and Canadian scientists analyzed the data.”

“The images form the most accurate and detailed map ever made of the oldest light in the universe, what scientists call the cosmic microwave background, a sort of afterglow left over from the Big Bang. That ancient light has traveled for billions of years from the very early universe to reach Earth. The patterns of light represent the seeds of galaxies and clusters of galaxies seen today.”

“The results suggest the universe is expanding more slowly than scientists thought. The data also show there is less of the perplexing dark energy and more matter — both normal and dark matter — in the universe than previously known. Dark matter is an invisible substance that can be perceived only by observing the effects of gravity, while dark energy is a mysterious force thought to be responsible for pushing the universe apart.”

Universe Microwave

Overbye looking at the same data and reports in the New York Times:

“The map, the Planck team said in news conferences and in 29 papers posted online Thursday, is in stunning agreement with the general view of the universe that has emerged over the past 20 years, of a cosmos dominated by mysterious dark energy that seems to be pushing space apart and the almost-as-mysterious dark matter that is pulling galaxies together.”

“Analyzing the relative sizes and frequencies of spots and ripples over the years has allowed astronomers to describe the birth of the universe to a precision that would make the philosophers weep. The new data have allowed astronomers to tweak their model a bit. It now seems the universe is 13.8 billion years old, instead of 13.7 billion, and consists by mass of 4.9 percent ordinary matter like atoms, 27 percent dark matter and 68 percent dark energy.”

Modern science peers at the university through the lens of its technology, theories, and skeptical mind set.  It is interested in the empirical universe.  It answers questions about the physical universe.  It endeavors to explain this universe within the limits of the universe – all things are to be explained by the cause and effect physics which govern the inanimate subatomic world.  Science has moved to a point where some of its adherents deny there is anything beyond this physical universe.  So many scientists find questions about what it means to be human or why anything exists at all to be worthless speculation since those questions are beyond their interest and expertise.

St. John of Damascus writing in the 8th Century still lives in a world in which science and theology are pursuing the same truth and so he readily incorporates the science of his day into his theologically dogmatic writings.  He was not afraid of science even when it came from non-biblical sources and even if the assumptions between science and the bible were not exactly the same (though he  thought they all had one source – God).   He accepts as scientific ideas that have been discarded long ago as false, and he accepts some things as science which we would say were are superstitions.   But, I think what is true is that St. John would have been as interested today in what science says about the cosmos as he was in what the educated people of his day taught.  He knows both the teachings of his contemporary science and the controversies that offered different theories of the nature of the universe.

He would have been, I think, most fascinated to see what telescopes see and to discover that humans can put telescopes in satellites which are launched into “outer space” (a concept he wouldn’t have known as he believed in a vault/fimament covering/surrounding the earth).  The technology which makes all this possible, he would have marveled at and welcomed because he believed the universe as part of the created order is something we can study to learn about the Creator who reveals divinity in and through the created world.  God made us physical beings and we know of God through our bodies and physical senses because they are related to our souls and the spirit which God has put within us.  The physical universe is for us physical beings a window into heaven.

Humans are made in the image and likeness of God, and though this image and likeness is not a physical quality, it is imprinted/implanted in beings who are physical.  The incarnation of God the Son tells us the physical world is capable of bearing divinity – physical and spiritual are the same reality.  Icons, those theological means to express the truth of the incarnation, tells us the physical world is capable of revealing God to us and in us.

King David with Wisdom and Prophecy