God Makes the World Make Itself

“When we contemplate the physical creation, we see an unimaginable complex, organized on many planes one above another; atomic, molecular, cellular; vegetable, animal, social. And the marvel of it is that at every level the constituent elements run themselves, and, by their mutual interaction, run the world. God not only makes the world, he makes it make itself; or rather, he causes its innumerable constituents to make it. And this in spite of the fact that the constituents are not for the most part intelligent. They cannot enter into the creative purposes they serve. They cannot see beyond the tip of their noses; they have, indeed, no noses not to see beyond, nor any eyes with which to fail in the attempt.

All they can do is blind away at being themselves, and fulfil the repetitive pattern of their existence. When you contemplate this amazing structure, do you wonder that it should be full of flaws, breaks, accidents, collisions, and disasters? Will you not be more inclined to wonder why chaos does not triumph; how higher forms of organization should ever arise, or, having arisen, maintain and perpetuate themselves?

Though a thousand species have perished with the mammoth and the dodo, and though all species, perhaps, must perish at the last, it is a sort of miracle that the species there are should have established themselves. And how have they established themselves? Science studies the pattern, but theology assigns the cause: that imperceptible persuasion exercised by creative Will on the chaos of natural forces, setting a bias on the positive and achieving creatures.”

(Austin Farrer, from The Time of the Spirit, p. 6)

On Recreation

Sunset over the Grand Teton mountains

Even the desert fathers believed it necessary to rest and recreate.  Below is story about St. Anthony defending his fellow monks when they once were observed jesting and enjoying themselves by a man who disapproved of such behavior among monks.

So vacations are time to have some fun while enjoying the blessings of God’s creation, even things millions of years old or extinct!

Some have been brought back from near extinction as humans realized we really can have a negative impact on creation or a positive one – human choices and behavior matter.

Even if God takes millions of years to form things, He has all the time in the world to bring His will to fruition.

The animals themselves seem to enjoy frolicking in God’s creation.

So too we humans enjoy God’s creation and each other’s company.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

Though it was June and we saw plenty of snow, not everything white is ice or snow.  The hot springs make beautiful formations from the minerals they spew forth.

Sunrise at Cooke City, Montana, facing west.

From the desert fathers:

“There was somebody in the desert hunting wild animals and he saw Abba Anthony jesting with the brothers.  The elder wanted to convince the hunter that he had to come down to the level of the brothers from time to time.

He said to him: ‘Put an arrow to your bow and draw it.’  He did so.  He said to him: ‘Draw again,’ and he drew.  Again he said, ‘Draw.’  The hunter said to him: ‘If I draw beyond its capacity my bow will break.’  Said the elder to him: “So it is too with the work of God.  If we draw on the brothers beyond their capacity, they will quickly break.  So it is necessary to come down to the level of the brothers from time to time.’

The hunter was conscience-stricken when he heard this and went his way greatly benefitted from the elder.  The brothers withdrew to their place strengthened.”  (GIVE ME A WORD,  pp 33-34)

You can see all the photos I took on my tour of Yellowstone and environs at  2018 Yellowstone Vacation (just click on any icon to view the set of photos).  You can see a select few photos at Yellowstone Favorites and Vacation Favorites.  Meanwhile, back home our best friends awaited our return:

Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (III)

Previous post: Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (II)

In the two previous posts, I looked at some of the comments St. Gregory of Nyssa made regarding science and being human in his book THE MAKING OF MAN.  In this post, the last in this series, I want to note some of Gregory’s ideas about the human body. We do get the sense from his writings that Gregory is aware of the science of his day and values it.  We have seen that he doesn’t assume just because something is claimed in scripture that we have to accept it as a literal truth.  He does not try to oppose science to the bible, but rather wants to create a synthesis of the truths contained in the bible and those known from nature/science.  His thinking might show us a way forward to day as the Church looks at scientific claims in the 21st Century.   The Patristic writers were aware that their entire culture accepted the science/philosophy of their day and so knew the Church had to deal with accepted truths that were not derived from Scripture.

Regarding the relationship of the mind to the body, Gregory is aware that brain injuries do affect the mind of a person, but he is not convinced that the mind is restricted to the brain, rather believing that the mind is in some mysterious fashion found throughout the human body.  The nervous system was not yet understand in his day, but they could observe that the mind did seem to control all voluntary movements of limbs and body parts.

“And although I am aware that the intellectual energies are blunted, or even made altogether ineffective in a certain condition of the body, I do not hold this a sufficient evidence for limiting the faculty of the mind by any particular place . . . for the intelligible nature neither dwells in the empty spaces of the bodies, nor is extruded by encroachments of the flesh . . . for the mind is somehow naturally adapted to be in close relation with that which is in a natural condition, but to be alien from that which is removed from nature.”  (pp 54-55)

The nervous system was not understood in the 4th Century, and Gregory cannot account how the mind can work in all parts of the body, but he does believe that because the mind affects every part of the body, it has to be present everywhere in the body.

“… for the purpose of our argument was to show that the mind is not restricted to any part of the body, but is equally in touch with the whole, producing its motion according to the nature of the part which is under its influence.” (p 70)

The mind is related to the physical body in some fashion, but he treats it more as if the mind occupies the body.  He is not sure why certain injuries stop the mind from working in different parts of the body.  He does think it is the mind which makes the various limbs and body parts move.  The mind seems more like a vital fluid which flows throughout the body, but that flow can be stopped by injuries.

Gregory does accept the basic idea that the health of the body is maintained by the body organs keeping a balance of the four humors of the body.  The organs have the job of trying to keep the proper warmth and moisture of the body.

We see then that the powers which control life are three, of which the first by its heat produces general warmth, the second by it moisture keeps damp that which is warmed, so that the living being is kept in an intermediate condition by the equal balance of the forces exerted by the quality of each of the opposing natures (the moist element not being dried up by excess of heat, nor the hot element quenched by the prevalence of moisture); and the third power by its own agency holds together the separate members in a certain agreement and harmony, connecting them by the ties which it itself furnishes, and sending into them all that self-moving and determining force, on the failure of which the member become relaxed and deadened, being left destitute of the determining spirit.” (p 146)

This schema of the three powers that control life in a person are worked out in the body organs.  The organs are compared to mechanical devices and thought to serve similar functions.

“The breath in the heart is supplied by means of the neighboring organ, which is called the lungs … draws to itself, somewhat as the bellows do in the forges a supply from the adjacent air ..”  (p 150)

“…we understand the principle of heat is to be found in the heart…” (p 151)

He holds to the idea of the body organs maintaining the heat of the body, even seeing the blood being red – a sign of its fiery nature.

“… the artery … receives the heated air from the heart and conveys it to the liver, making its opening there somewhere beside the point at which the fluids enter, and, as it warms the moist substance by its heat, blends with the liquid something akin to fire, and makes the blood appear red with the fiery tint it produces.”  (p 154)

Interestingly, the human digestive system is designed the way it is – the long colon – so that food remains in us for a long period, or otherwise we would want to eat all the time like wild animals.  Because God designed the long colon in humans, our bodies retain the food, and this gives us humans a chance not to be preoccupied with food and to develop our rational nature.  Even evolutionists do think that humans being omnivores, able to find many sources of food, and then learning to cook food, did in fact reduce the amount of time we had to forage for food and did enable the brain to grow larger.  So having to spend less time on finding food and chewing it allowed the brain to grow and for reason to become more prominent in the human animal.

“… and expels the sedimentary matter of the food to the wider passages of the bowels, and by turning it over in their manifold windings retains the food for a time in the intestines, lest if it were easily got rid of by a straight passage it might at once excite the animal again to appetite, and man, like the race of irrational animals, might never cease from this sort of occupation.”  (p 153)

Like many of the Patristic writers, who were monks, there is a concern that humans are too much like other animals.  There is a need to try to separate humans from animal and animal behavior as much as is possible.  Human appetite and eating are moral issues for Gregory rather than merely natural issues.  He does believe that having to eat physical food is a sign of our fallen nature and is not how God intended humans to be.  He does interpret much of the biblical account of the Garden of Eden as being a spiritual existence and not about eating physical food but about spiritual food.

“It may be, however, that some one feels shame at the fact that our life, like that of brutes is sustained by food, and for this reason deems man unworthy of being supposed to have been framed in the image of God; but he may expect that freedom from this function will one day be bestowed upon our nature in the life we look for; for, as the Apostle says, ‘the kingdom of God is not meat and drink’ (Rom 14:17); and the Lord declared that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.  Further, as the resurrection holds forth to us a life equal with the angels, and with the angels there is no food, there is sufficient ground for believing that man, who will live in like fashion with the angels, will be released from such a function.”  (pp 91-92)

When humans are released from this world in the Kingdom, there will be no more eating or drinking – activities which belong to the fallen world.  For many Orthodox it might be shocking to note that Gregory does not envision an eternal Paschal Banquet – because for him there is no food in the Kingdom!   References to food and banquets for him are spiritual ideas.  Humans are destined to become like angels and be freed from food or a desire to eat.

One way that ancient science differs from modern science is that the ancients believed one could derive moral lessons from observing animals.  Animal behavior was anthropomorphized – seen as reflecting human life and values.  The goal of the “rational” life for humans was to become less like the animals and more like angels.  Gregory does see eating as a moral issue – it is a sign of the effects of sin on humans, so is something to be overcome in the world to come.  The Fathers ideas of fasting are related to their thinking about animal nature.  They are also related to their ideas about maintaining a balance between moisture and dryness, heat and cold in the body.  Fasting might work to make us less dependent on our bodies.  Drinking even water could throw off the moisture balance in the body which would lead to increasing one’s desires and passions.  For the Fathers this was both spiritual and scientific.  Our goal is to enter into a spirtual manner of living.




The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal

This is the 16th  blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is St. John Chrysostom on Humans as Beasts and Saints.

“For the devil has always been eager, through these philosophers, to show that our race is in no way more honorable than the beasts.”   (St. John ChrysostomWOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 231)

It is not only modern scientific materialists who think humans are nothing more than another animal.  In the Fourth Century St. John Chrysostom was engaged with philosophies and philosophers of his day which had decided that humans are nothing more than a brute beast. [Certainly through the centuries many rulers have thought that human life is cheap – just look at how troops were used in warfare, nothing more than ‘cannon fodder’ and hoping to use up enemy arrows and spears before one ran out of men].   Prior to the Fourth Century Christianity had spent a great deal of its apologetic arguments against various form of Gnosticism beginning with Docetism in the First Century, all of which had denied the value of the physical nature of humans.

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.“   (1 John 4:2)

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”  (2 John :7)

The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ showed the extent to which God valued humanity’s physical nature.  God had created the humans with a physical body which was capable of being united to divinity.   Humans though having a physical body like any animal were viewed by the early Christians as not being merely animals.

“It is not only in our possessing a rational (logikon) soul that we surpass beasts…, but we also excel them in body.  For God has fashioned the body to correspond with the soul’s nobility (eugeneia), and has fitted it to execute the soul’s commands.”    (St. John Chrysostom quoted in WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 125)

Humans have an animal body but the human corporeal nature is not controlled by or limited to the body.  Each human has a soul, the very place where divinity and the physical world interface.  God bestowed upon the human God’s own image and likeness, which is how humans differed from all other animals – humans are related to God in specific ways which other animals are not. Each individual human has a nobility and a value bestowed upon them by God:  this is certainly a great contribution Christianity offered to the world- even the “impoverished masses” are seen by God as beings to be loved and cherished and all have worth and nobility in God’s eyes, and so are also to be loved by all other humans.

“God has given us a body of earth, in order that we might lead it up with us into Heaven, and not that we would draw our soul down with it to the earth.  It is earthly (geodes), but if we please, it may become heavenly (ouranion).  See how highly God has honored us, in committing to us so excellent a task.  ‘I made Heaven and Earth,’ He says, ‘and to you I give the power of creation’ … Make your earth heaven, for it is in your power.”  (St. John Chrysostom quoted in WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 146)

The human is created to be both the connection between God and creatures, and the mediator between them, enabling all of the rest of creation to have a full relationship to the Creator through the human’s relationship with God.  St. Ephrem the Syrian makes an interesting, if allegorical interpretation of the humans having both physical and spiritual qualities.  He sees these qualities as interrelated and intertwined with both the world of agriculture and the liturgical year.  Everything is arranged by God:

“… Ephrem points out that human beings possess both a physical and a spiritual side and that they need to cultivate these two aspects equally: physical labor on the land receives its reward in October, with the ingathering of its produce and the arrival of the rain after the long hot summer months of drought;  spiritual toil, however, is rewarded in April, the month of the Feast of the Resurrection—and it was on Easter eve that in many places it was the custom for baptisms to take place.  Agricultural labor and spiritual toil turn out to be closely interrelated, for October provides the oil for the baptismal anointing in April.”   (Ephrem the Syrian, SELECT POEMS, p 181)

For St. Maximos the Confessor humans share a relationship with both plants and animals, but then have beyond either intelligence and a intellect.  This gives humans a means to share in immortality.

“The soul has three powers: first, the power of nourishment and growth; second, that of imagination and instinct; third, that of intelligence and intellect. Plants share only in the first of these powers; animals share in the first and second; men share in all three. The first two powers are perishable; the third is clearly imperishable and immortal.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 13154-59)

In the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas the human naturally has a relationship with God, but if that relationship is lost or distorted, then the human too becomes unnatural and loses his/her humanity.  Being dehumanized, or becoming inhuman is in his mind a form of hell on earth.

 “‘A mind removed from God becomes like either a dumb beast or a demon.  Once having transgressed the bounds of nature, it lusts for what is alien.  Yet if finds no satisfaction for its greed and, giving itself the more fiercely to fleshly desires, it knows no bounds in its search for earthly pleasures.’ . . . Life becomes a hell, freedom a burden, and other people a curse.”  (Archimandrite George Capsanis,  THE EROS OF REPENTANCE, p 9)

Life on earth becomes a hell when we lose our godliness, even if we gain all the riches of the world.

“‘What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?’ Christ asks His disciples (Matt. 16:26); and He says that there is nothing equal in value to the soul. Since the soul by itself is far more valuable than the whole world and any worldly kingdom, is not the kingdom of heaven also more valuable? That the soul is more valuable is shown by the fact that God did not see fit to bestow on any other created thing the union and fellowship with His own coessential Spirit. Not sky, sun, moon, stars, sea, earth or any other visible thing did He bless in this way, but man alone, whom of all His creatures He especially loved.”  (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 34642-54)

Christian theology has through the centuries highly valued each human being and viewed human life as sacred because God the Trinity bestowed on each human being a sanctity by creating all in God’s own image and giving each person a soul and imprinting the image of God on every human being.  Orthodox Christianity continues to defend the sanctity of human life and to defend the dignity and nobility of every human being whether saint or sinner, believer or not.  Christianity is not opposed to science, but rejects the reductionist thinking of materialism which denies that humans are related to God or can aspire to something greater than our brutish animal nature.  We believe that even science shows humans have conscious awareness, consciences and free will.  As many scientists now acknowledge humans are no longer predestined by their genetics but have even gained control over some these natural forces of evolution.

Darwin caused controversy, not merely because his ideas contradicted Genesis, but because they fell foul of the way in which Genesis had been read by those influenced by the Enlightenment, for it was the Enlightenment that conceived of the human as almost exclusively rational and intellectual, and set the human at a distance from the animal. When the Fathers interpret Genesis, they see the human as sharing a very great deal with animal, and indeed plant-like, creation. The possession of reason, the gift of being in the image of God, makes the human distinctive, indeed raises the human to a position that transcends the animal and the plant-like, both as being nobler, and also as bearing responsibility for the rest of creation, but the human still shares a very great deal with the rest of creation, both animal and plant-like, and even with the inanimate”     (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1469-75)

We humans are biologically, chemically and genetically related to all other animals on earth.  However, we believe we are not only or merely animals.  We are rational and intellectual beings.  However, rationality and intellectualism neither completely define delineate what it is to be a human being, for we believe we are created in God’s image and we are embodied souls or ensouled bodies, and thus are spiritual beings.

“When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart.  Placed by the Creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals: for animals have the faculty of will or desire, and the faculty of jealousy or fury, in the same measure as man.  The spiritual faculty in the heart manifests itself—independently of the intellect—in the conscience or consciousness of our spirit, in the fear of God, in spiritual love towards God and our neighbor, in feelings of repentance, humility, or meekness, in contrition of the spirit or deep sadness for our sins, and in other spiritual feelings; all of which are foreign to animals.” (Bishop Ignatii Brianchaninov, THE ART OF PRAYER, p 190)

Next:  The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal (II)

The “In the Beginning” Conundrum

universeIn my blog, Science and Creation from Nothing, I referenced Steve Nadis’ September 2013 DISCOVER MAGAZINEarticle, “Starting Point,” regarding the beginning of the universe.  The article focused on the research of Cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin  whose research has led him to conclude “that before our universe there was nothing, nothing at all, not even time itself.”  Vilenkin claims that a concept of the universe having always existed, does not match the data that we know.

“Indeed, says Vilenkin, among all the ideas we’ve thought of so far for a universe without a beginning, none of them seem to work. ‘So the answer to the question of whether the universe had a beginning is yes, it probably did.’”

With Vilenkin’s ideas, one does not have to engage in an endless discussion of cause and effect trying to determine what caused the Big Bang.   He thinks the current science shows there was a true beginning.

“One virtue of the picture, if correct, is that the spontaneous creation of our universe gives a definite starting point to things. Time begins at the moment of creation, putting to rest the potentially endless questions about ‘what happened before that.’”

St. Augustine
St. Augustine

Speculating on the beginning of the universe is not just a problem caused by the modern scientific mindset of a material cause yielding an effect.  Brandon Gallaher writing in a recent issue of the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly (“Chalice of Eternity: An Orthodox Theology of Time“) notes that in the 5th Century St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430AD) also pondered the same question, though from a theological point of view.  Gallaher notes:

“Augustine attempts to respond to the question: ‘What was God doing before He created all things?’  To which Augustine responds:  nothing as doing (sc. creating) implies time.  Time which came to be with God’s act of creation, for God is timeless or immutable and changeless unlike creation, which is temporal, mutable and changing.”   (SVTQ  57:1 2013, p 8)

Not only is it impossible for empirical science to know what happened before or caused the Big Bang, it also makes no sense for believers to ask what God was doing before creation existed.  Our scientific and theological knowledge comes to its limit when we come to the very beginning of creation and what existed “before” that.  God in His essence is unknowable to us.  As created beings we humans can only know God in and through His creation.  And we can only know creation back to the nanosecond in which it came into existence.   Beyond or before that is really meaning to us who exist in space and time.  We can only marvel and wonder at the mystery of creation and the revelation of our Creator.


Genetic Disposition vs. Genetic Determinism

doublehelixBecause I frequently ponder questions like “what does it mean to be human?” or “what is it to be human?”, I find genetic studies to be fascinating for what they contribute to our understanding of what a human is.   So I read with interest the article, The Social Life of Genes, by David Dobbs in the PACIFIC STANDARD magazine. There were many “hooks” in the article that drew me in.   I recently published a couple of blogs on bees, and Dobbs’ article starts off looking at some fascinating studies in the genes of bees.  Young bees were taken from killer bee hives and put in regular honey bee hives and young honey bees were put into killer bee hives.  Lo and behold, the bees learned the behavior of their new hives.  Dobbs writes about studies done on the DNA of the transplanted bees:

“The move between hives didn’t just make the bees act differently. It made their genes work differently, and on a broad scale.

What’s more … the adopted bees of both species came to ever more resemble, as they moved through life … the bees they moved in with. With every passing day their genes acted more like those of their new hive mates (and less like those of their genetic siblings back home). “

The significance for refuting absolute genetic determinism has to be noted.  I wonder if the Jerry Coynes of the world are seeing what science is showing.  Genes may influence a great deal, but they don’t predetermine everything about any species.  These new studies tend to indicate that adherence to strict determinism is a philosophical choice, not a scientific one:  determinism is not in the biology but in one’s beliefs about biology.  As the article notes:

“Your DNA is not a blueprint. Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your surroundings. Your neighbors, your family, your feelings of loneliness: They don’t just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells.“

A number of scientists working in epigenetics and related studies are coming to see that there are many factors which shape and change a life, including shaping and changing gene expression.

“Changes in gene expression can make you thin, fat, or strikingly different from your supposedly identical twin. When it comes down to it, really, genes don’t make you who you are. Gene expression does. And gene expression varies depending on the life you live.”

In other words, we are not controlled completely by our genes, but decisions we make and events in the world around us shape our lives in ways which preclude complete genetic determinism.  Thus, even our  thinking can modify our gene expression.

“This fresh work by Robinson, Fernald, Clayton, and others—encompassing studies of multiple organisms, from bees and birds to monkeys and humans—suggests something more exciting: that our social lives can change our gene expression with a rapidity, breadth, and depth previously overlooked.

Why would we have evolved this way? The most probable answer is that an organism that responds quickly to fast-changing social environments will more likely survive them. That organism won’t have to wait around, as it were, for better genes to evolve on the species level. Immunologists discovered something similar 25 years ago: Adapting to new pathogens the old-fashioned way—waiting for natural selection to favor genes that create resistance to specific pathogens—would happen too slowly to counter the rapidly changing pathogen environment. Instead, the immune system uses networks of genes that can respond quickly and flexibly to new threats.”

In a sense neither environment alone nor genetics alone nor evolution alone determines what it is to be human.  Rather, all these elements interact but how these interactions become expressed in the lives of individuals or species cannot be complete predicted.  Evolution itself is not this mindless and completely random passing on of genes.  Evolution occurs within the living context of organisms relating to their environments.  Some species and individuals are quite adaptive to new conditions.  Humans consciously engage the environment and even create a social environment which studies now show affect their genetic expression.   Both the individual through choices and the society we live in have real and lasting effects on our genetic make up and expression.   The biological system is creative and far more quickly adaptive than pure evolution would suggest.  While evolution calls for change over huge periods of time as a species plods through history, some noted changes can occur within a lifetime of an individual or a species as was shown in the experiment mentioned above with the killer bees and honey bees.  Dr. Steven Cole says:

“Your experiences today will influence the molecular composition of your body for the next two to three months, or, perhaps, for the rest of your life. Plan your day accordingly.”

That thought has obvious implications for those theists who do accept aspects of evolution.  If experience can influence the molecular composition of your body, then sin does have a biological effect on what it is to be human.  The world of the Fall is not merely abstract thinking but begins to describe what we experience and witness everyday in human behavior.

In Dobbs interview with Dr. Cole, the implications of this new research become apparent.

“He wanted to add one more thing: He didn’t see any of this as deterministic.

We were obviously moving away from what he could prove at this point, perhaps from what is testable. We were in fact skirting the rabbit hole that is the free-will debate. Yet he wanted to make it clear he does not see us as slaves to either environment or genes.

“You can’t change your genes. But if we’re even half right about all this, you can change the way your genes behave—which is almost the same thing. By adjusting your environment you can adjust your gene activity. That’s what we’re doing as we move through life. We’re constantly trying to hunt down that sweet spot between too much challenge and too little.”

In this thinking, one might add that repentance, prayer and fasting, and actively participating in the communal liturgies of the church become not just a way of life for Christians, but a way in which we do our own form of genetic modification!  The effects of the Fall are not merely spiritual, they are biological as well – death has become part of our existence.  Conversely, life in the Body of Christ, is not only spiritual but also a social experience which influences epigenetics, and  has biological implications for our health as well as our being.

Scientists and Angelic Thinking

One of the most famous and also controversial writers in Church is Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399AD).  His writings on the desert fathers and mystical spirituality were very influential in monastic circles.  His works and spirituality were geared almost exclusively to monks.  He died in communion with the Church but by the 6th Century his writings were rejected along with the works of Origen as they tended to be taken to heretical conclusions.    But by that time they  were so wide spread that it was impossible to retract them, plus they continued to be circulated under pseudonyms.

In one quote from him that caught my eye Evagrius is distinguishing between angelic, human and demonic thoughts. In the Patristic period it was common to believe that there are different levels of meaning found in things – whether in reading Scriptures or studying nature; and there being three levels of meaning was also a common assumption.

Evagrius is said to have rejected the dualism so common among the gnostics of his day which condemned the physical world as evil.  However, Evagrius’ anthropology and cosmology are very different from thoughts we who live in the modern scientific world might have today.  Nevertheless I found his contrasts between the three types of thought to be interesting, for the questions he says angelic thought would ask about the world are completely what we would see as scientific questions.  What he calls “spiritual reasons” we would call truth or facts and we see them in the realm of what scientists try to answer.  I just find it interested that a 4th Century writer saw as angelic (or advanced) thinking what we today would see as just plain scientific thinking.

In the following quote from Evagrius, even the opening line comes right from rational, scientific thinking – you base your ideas on what can be observed.  Evagrius says they frequently observed these things which even gives some further credence to a sort of scientific method!

“After frequent observation, we have found that …

Angelic [thoughts] scrutinize the nature of things and search out their spiritual reasons.  For example, why gold was created and dispersed like sand and disseminated in the valleys of the earth, and is found only with great effort and toil; and why, once found, it is washed in water and committed to the fire, and then put into the hand of artisans who fashion it into the lamps of the tabernacle and the altar of burnt offerings and the censers and the bowls, from which, by the grace of our Redeemer, the king of Babylon now no longer drinks…  

Second, demonic thought neither understands nor knows such things.  It only suggest shamelessly the acquisition of the gold …  

Lastly, human thought seeks neither to acquire gold, not is it concerned about what gold symbolizes.  It merely brings before the mind the bare image of gold, devoid of the passion of greed.     By applying this rule mystically, one can say the same about other things.”  (DRAGON’S WINE AND ANGEL’S BREAD, pp 116-117)

Demonic thoughts in Evagrius really involve using the created world, which He believed to be good since it was created by God, for evil purposes.  It is demonic to take God’s creation and turn it to some evil purpose – greed is evil in his Christian worldview.

On the other hand, human thought is basically just seeing the world as it is without assigning any meaning to it.   Created things are not evil in and of themselves, and we can see them as being animal, vegetable, mineral, etc, and they remain neutral in value until we put them to some use.   In some ways the human thought when applied to nature is how many Patristic writers saw a basic reading of scripture:  its face value void of entering into its deeper meaning.

But the angelic thought in this quote is interested in the truth or truths about things – understanding God’s creation and the mysteries that the created order presents to us.  We see things and wonder “why?” in regards to so many things about them.  This seeking of knowledge was considered angelic by Evagrius.  Interesting also that artisans who make use of these things are listed within the angelic thinking level.   Obviously Evagrius’ world is very different than our own, but one has to allow that seeking knowledge about created things would still be considered angelic by Evagrius.  Though science today is not also pursuing understanding the Creator through creation, still science continues to ask the “why?” question regarding creation.  We believers do not have to assume that scientific knowledge will always lead to atheistic ideas.  That was not the assumption of Evagrius in the 4th Century.

“Science” in the Library of Congress

Evagrius’ attitude toward scientific knowledge being angelic thinking reminds me also of a verse from the Akathist service, Glory to God for All Things, written by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Tryphon (d. 1934), who lived and died in an atheist culture.  He places in his his hymns these words:

“The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You. How great are You in Your creation! How great are You in man!”

Perhaps we too often accept the view of those who want to oppose scientific thinking to that of believers.  Maybe we Christians would have a better comprehension of scientific knowledge if we looked at Christians in other centuries long before the modern debates which pitted secular science with fundamentalistic biblical literalism.  Then we might see that some of the very thoughtful writers of the ancient Christian world saw no need to oppose science and Christianity but rather assumed they were working to understand the universe truthfully.

Like 4th Century Evagrius, 20th Century Metropolitan Tryphon understood the pursuit of knowledge, truth, science is also a pursuit of knowing God’s creation.  The truths uncovered by science obviously can be interpreted in an atheistic way but they also can, even if unwittingly, speak to us about God’s hand in the universe.   Evagrius thought such knowledge was angelic.  Evagrius also does not assume that all of the answers to these angelic questions are found in Scripture.  He understands that there is valuable knowledge (angelic!) which we learn from nature and observation.  He would also, I think, assume that when nature and biblical texts don’t agree, the problem is not that they must be put in opposition to each other, but rather than it demonstrates our understanding of things is inadequate.  He would not see a need to hold to a wooden literalism of the biblical text but would look for a deeper meaning in it.

The knowledge of creation is a wisdom which comes from God:

“And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore,  so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. …  He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.  And men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.”  (1 Kings 4:29-34)

Stem Cells and St. Irenaeus

All of the Patristic writers of the Church lived in what we would call the “pre-scientifc” age.  Sometimes that adjective “pre-scientific” is used in a pejorative sense, implying that even the wisest of people in those days were superstitious or scientifically ignorant.  However, many of the Patristic writers were among the educated and intellectuals of their day and had an acute interest in science – at least as science was understood in their day.  They did not try to promote ignorance and superstition and in fact exposed fraudulent religion as encouraged people to become enlightened with the best knowledge available to them.

Because they were good observers of nature, they also occasionally touch upon an idea that while having a different meaning in their day comes close to ideas that we now hold through scientific inquiry rather than seeing them as revealed by God.  So we can read from the National Institutes of Health a description/definition of stem cells.

“Stem cells are important for living organisms for many reasons. In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, the inner cells give rise to the entire body of the organism, including all of the many specialized cell types and organs such as the heart, lung, skin, sperm, eggs and other tissues. In some adult tissues, such as bone marrow, muscle, and brain, discrete populations of adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury, or disease.”   (NIH, “What are stem cells and why are they important?”)

Siamang Gibbon hand

Stem cells are involved in the formation of specialized cells, body parts and organs within an organism, and also account for the differences in organs and body parts between species.

With that explanation of stem cells in mind, it is interesting to compare it with a thought from St. Irenaeus, who died in 202AD and so was really a 2nd Century writer.  He’s writing on the development of a human’s body.  He knows nothing about stem cells, and yet describes the miracle of how various body parts and organs form.  He gives glory to God for this miracle but is also giving recognition to a process which can be observed in nature.

“And that flesh shall also be found fit for and capable of receiving the power of God, which at the beginning received the skillful touches of God; so that one part became the eye for seeing; another, the ear for hearing; another, the hand for feeling and working; another, the sinews stretched out everywhere, and holding the limbs together; another, arteries and veins, passages for the blood and the air; another, the various internal organs; another, the blood, which is the bond of union between soul and body. But why go [on in this strain]? Numbers would fail to express the multiplicity of parts in the human frame, which was made in no other way than by the great wisdom of God. But those things which partake of the skill and wisdom of God, do also partake of His power.”   (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 7508-13)

Tiger cub paw

For St. Irenaeus, the development of the parts and organs of a human body are really the work of the wisdom and power of God.  Obviously for him, this development of a human being does not unfold according to random processes, but according to a plan.  Organization and an organism emerge from material that is physical.  It is a movement against entropy and toward meaning and design.  Although nature moves towards entropy, chaos, disintegration, reproduction and genetics pushes towards organization, purpose and meaning.

Theology and Physics: Moving from Light to Darkness

Even in science it is the unknown that creates excitement.  Mystery elicits a strong interest to investigate, and there is a desire to discover the unexpected.  What Harvard Theoretical Physicist Lisa Randall

“is excited about is ‘dark matter,’ which—along with ‘dark energy’—makes up the vast majority of the known universe. The current estimate is that 70 percent of the universe is dark energy and 26 percent dark matter. Which adds up to 96 percent. Meaning that what we see and know adds up to a measly 4 percent.

Four percent! The invisible 96 percent apparently keeps the universe in gravitational equilibrium, preventing it from collapsing on itself or dissipating into virtual nothingness. But we know almost nothing else about it. The problem has been that the dark stuff doesn’t seem to interact with the 4 percent we know in such a way that gives us a clue to its nature.”   (Lisa Randall’s Guide to the Galaxy,  Smithsonian  June 2013)

This excitement in physics is moving from the known to the unknown, from light into darkness.   It is the experience of the new day beginning at sunset: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5).

That is the same direction and movement we find in mystical theology.  We move from the known (this world which we can see, touch, hear, smell, measure, test) to the unknown (to the Divine, the eternal, the Resurrection and Ascension).   We move in mystical theology from light (what we can see in the empirical world) to the darkness which is the mystical experience of God (that which is beyond our sensory experience).

The same thing which is exciting and attractive about science – discovering mystery – is what makes theology and the mystical life attractive to believers.  The cosmos and the Creator both hold great mystery – knowledge we have not penetrated and even cannot penetrate.  We know the truth is there, but it remains beyond our ability to grasp, control or even test.

(See also my blog Journey into the Unknown: Science and Religion)

Conscious Choices in Evolution

A challenge both to the absoluteness of natural selection and the complete randomness in evolution is being raised by science itself.  The science of epigenetics and technophysio evolution show – we are no longer completely predestined by nature or genetics.  This is the current thinking of science itself.  Consider the comments in Steven Kotler’s Evolution Full Tilt   by in the March 2013 issue of Discover Magazine.

“… with the burgeoning new field of epigenetics – the study of how the external environment can alter our genes throughout life, and even be passed on to future generations.  Today researchers in this well-established field have shown that natural selection is not the only force producing heritable change.”

“’Over the past 300 years,’ Fogel (Robert Fogel, University of Chicago economist) says, ‘humans have increased their average body size by over 50 percent, average longevity by more than 100 percent, and greatly improved the robustness and capacity of vital organ systems.     From an evolutionary perspective, 300 years is an eyeblink.  A sneeze.  Not nearly enough time for these sorts of radical improvements.  …  ‘In the past hundred years,’ Fogel says, ‘ humans have gained an unprecedented degree of control over their environment, a degree of control so great that it sets them apart not only from all other species, but from all previous generations of Homo sapiens.’   Fogel’s core idea, which he calls technophysio evolution…   In short, technology Is impacting genetics.”

The issue is that the emergence of human consciousness means humans are no longer merely the victims of evolutionary change but rather have begun to influence and even control evolution – their own as well as that of other species.  No longer is evolution and natural selection a random process for now it can be guided toward chosen and designed ends.

“Over the past few centuries, and accelerating ever more quickly in the past 50 years, a steady stream of human innovations has begun to drastically speed up processes that were, until very recently, the sole province of nature.  In short, it appears that our technology has created ways of accelerating change (genetic engineering, for instance) and new habitats (like the modern city), essentially fracturing our biology and transforming our future as a species.”

“Think about this: Humans are a 200,000-year-old species.  When we first emerged our life span was 20 years.  By the turn of the 20th Century it had become 44 years.  We advanced by 24 over the course of 200,000 years.  But today, it’s 80 years.  These simple improvements doubled our longevity in a century.”

A totally random universe with no overall evolutionary direction or purpose can no longer be claimed with the rise of human consciousness which has opened the door to intentional evolution.

“But many of the technologies that are now advancing most rapidly are ones that cut out the middleman – that Darwinian mediator, natural selection – allowing us to take direct control of our internal environment and push it forward, even when the niches is unchanged.”

And as science is showing it is not only scientific and technological advances which are now influencing and even controlling evolution.  For studies show that even the existence of cities and the economic choices of humans are impacting the human species in evolutionary terms.  Economist John Komlos acknowledges:

“Technophysio evolution shows that economics has an impact at the cellular level – that it goes bone deep.”

All of these advances in understanding the many forces, including human choice which effect evolution certainly will also change the nature of debate between those who believe in evolution and those who accept the hand of God in shaping evolution.  We can now see from science that intention is an evolutionary force.

But as Kotler shows the realization that humans do in fact effect evolution and put intention as a factor in what is shaping our planet leads to other conclusions, some of which will not sit well with many folk.  Juan Enriquez, the CEO of Biotechnomy claims:

“’We’re now no more than a generation or two away from the emergence of an entirely new kind of hominid, Homo evolutus: a hominid that takes direct and deliberate control over its own evolution and the evolution of other species.’”

Kotler dismisses the fears of science fiction accounts that human intervention in genetic engineering will lead to eugenics.

“The standard science fiction version of what happens after we take control of our evolution usually runs along eugenic lines, leading toward efforts to build a master race.  But the real situation is nowhere near so straightforward.  Unintentional consequences are everywhere.  Seemingly unambiguous goals – like trying to make people more intelligent – not only involve millions of genes, raising the specter of easy error, but might involve conditional relationships: For instance, our intelligence might be tied to memory in ways we can’t yet decode, so trying to improve one ability might inadvertently impede the other.    Moreover, without some form of top-down control, there is little to suggest that human desires will be uniform enough even to agree on what a master race should be like.”

But society without a moral compass to guide its thinking on such issues will be at the mercy of those in power and those with money.  We already know what dictators are willing to do for and against populations.  What will stop the ruthless and rogue country from using such technology to change the world forever?

Kotler for example writes about what he sees as the plus of the genetics knowledge we now possess:

“When I was a child, Down syndrome was a real problem.  Today roughly 90 percent of all fetuses with Down syndrome are terminated.  Play these patterns forward, and we aren’t long from the day when we’re engineering our children: choosing skin color, eye color, personality traits.  How long after that until parents are saying, ‘I bought you the best brain money can buy – now why don’t you use it?’”

Kotler obviously views the Down syndrome person as neither human nor deserving of life.  He embraces the technology and morality which says it is OK to abort into oblivion any peoples we deem undeserving of life.  “Errors” in genetics mean such people do not deserve to live.  For Kotler aborting such persons is clearly a plus in a world which values people only in economic terms.  reaganHe apparently would be comfortable with terminating other undesirables as well – it does not matter who deems them so or by what criterion –  even if it is only something trivial such as eye color which determines who lives and who dies.

Our children become in this view products of our whims and thus we can create and destroy them at will since they are no more meaningful than snowmen we might build or the castles we make in the sand on beaches.   The understanding of human consciousness certainly puts a challenge to those who believe a blind and random universe is the only power controlling human destiny and evolution.  It also opens the door to displacing God not be atheism but by a human rationalism which is governed by the blindness of human hubris.