The Word, The Information, The Bit (IV)

This is the 4th and final blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1) and the immediately preceding blog is The Word,  The Information, The Bit (III).

The printing press by making permanent records available to all had the potential to preserve so much information from the past that we might become so overwhelmed with it that we would suffer a memory loss – no longer sure as to what was the exact past as we can now see all of the variations and changes and mistakes of the past – nothing has been forgotten and so the past becomes buried under mounds of facts which we don’t know how to measure or weigh.   Or it is possible that the new technologies in preserving more of the past make it more visible in detail to us, increasing our understanding of ourselves and of history?

“Another way to speak of the anxiety is in terms of the gap between information and knowledge.  A barrage of data so often fails to tell us what we need to know.  Knowledge, in turn, does not guarantee enlightenment or wisdom.  (T. S. Eliot [d 1965]  said that, too:  ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? …)’”  (p 403)

Or as one clever wag said:

“The more we study, the more we learn.

The more we learn, the more we know.

The more we know, the more we forget.

So, why study?”

All of Gleick’s book is a study of information, whatever that is, it has become the basis of the technologies we use daily and are so dependent on – all of the computing of any sorts we do from cell phones, to GPS, to e-readers, to computers of every size.     It is a fascinating look at the history of how our ideas of information have evolved through time.

“A ‘file’ was originally – in sixteenth-century England – a wire on which slips and bills and notes and letters could be strung for preservation and reference.  Then came file folders, file drawers, and file cabinets; then the electronic namesakes of all these; and the inevitable irony.  Once a piece of information is filed, it is statistically unlikely ever to be seen again by human eyes.”  (p 410)

So the Word became flesh according to St. John, but in the modern world the word becomes filed existing in an electronic incarnation called the bit.

“It was once thought that a perfect language should have an exact one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings.  There should be no ambiguity, no vagueness, no confusion.  Our earthly Babel is a falling off from the lost speech of Eden: a catastrophe and a punishment.”  But information theory and science says it ain’t so. “With or without God, there is no perfect language.”  (p 418)

All information requires interpretation.  It is the way of Christ who interprets Torah. It is God’s way.  Any incarnation of the word requires interpretation.   Christianity, if it is not so fearful, may come to realize that information theory tells us what we knew all along.   Islam for its part will struggle with this much more for it does hold that there is the exact original of the Quran in heaven of which all earthly volumes are precise copies –  though the Quran itself implies relying on a recited word, not one committed to print.

Babel was aimed at preventing humans from conspiring against heaven, not to prevent humans from understanding God who intended Babel to be a lesson.

But science in information theory sees itself moving in a particular direction.  Dexter Palmer wrote:

“In a modern age without an Author looking down on us from heaven, language is not a thing of definite certainty, but infinite possibility; without the comforting illusion of meaningful order we have no choice but to stare into the face of meaningless disorder; without the feeling that meaning can be certain, we find ourselves overwhelmed by all things that words might mean.” (p 419)

This seems to assume that humans are isolated and alienated from each other, and from all others and from God – extreme individualism with no shared anything.   But we share a world, and can share not only information but also understanding and meaning.  We can interpret and debate because we can share meaning.  Everything is not random.  Humans do some things with intention and with intended meaning – in other words, we do communicate.  It is also the nature of divine revelation, which is at the heart of Christian claims.  The reality may be that there is a pattern to all that exists, but we simply lack the perspective – the God view – to see it.  We are limited beings and do not like such limitations.

The English language according to Claude Shannon’s   (d 2001) statistics has close to 75% redundancy.  Certain letters follow other letters regularly, some combinations are totally rare.  It is what enables Google to “read my mind” when I do a search as it “guesses” the next letter in my search.  Randomness is not complete, order is both in the information and imposed on it.     And Gleick can write a 526 page book about it which does convey meaning in written form to any who read his book.   Even in the quantum world of unpredictability, there is a great amount of information conveyable to those who know how to read the signs.

Too bad that I read his book, and got my e-reader afterwards.  His may be the last of its kind for me – I’ll look for “books” that are available on Kindle.   It is a technology made possible by information theory.

“In the beginning was the Word…”   And that word was not coterminous with printed letters, but as a spoken word had no physical form, no letters serving as bookends to contain it within certain symbols.

The word became print, but that never altered the Word which retains all of its divinity.  Perhaps technology is freeing that Word once again so we will never mistakenly equate the Word with a written script, but rather will understand that the Word in its electronic manifestation (no incarnation, but an electronation?) will be much closer to its original revelation when God said, “let there be light.”

See also my blogs:  From Incarnation to Encryption and Knowledge and Wisdom, Fact and Truth

The Word, The Information and the Bit (I)

I did like James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   It’s all about something essential to my own life, but which I hardly understand at all:  information.   I hope to share in this Blog Series some things I learned, and also to share information about what I don’t understand.   Much of this latter part has to do with the science of how voluminous information is converted mathematically to signs and symbols which can then be readily transferred to distant points.  Thus huge files – photographs I send over the internet – can be converted to a format that enables their wireless transfer from one destination to another.

As Gleick says, it is probably nigh unto impossible for us to understand what it is to live in a pre-literate culture.  Our lives are so shaped by words and the logic which words allow, even for the illiterate among us.  Even pre-schooled three-year olds recognize the signs and symbols of their favorite fast food restaurant.

Symbols additionally allow increasingly abstract thinking, and greater analysis of the data and ideas they represent.

“Logic might be imagined to exist independent of writing—syllogisms can be spoken as well as written—but it did not.  Speech is too fleeting to allow for analysis.  Logic descended from the written word…   Only with writing does narrative structure come to embody sustained rational argument.”  (pp 37-38)


As Gleick points out in pre-literate culture, the spoken word has no permanency.  It dissipates quickly and can’t be analyzed very well.  The meaning of the spoken word is also not completely fixed and though ideas can be shared with those who speak the same language, between languages there is even more difficulties in communication.   Words are understood in context; the spoken word has no text to contextualize.

John’s Gospel introduces the idea of information with: “In the beginning was the word…”  (John 1:1).  Yet at that beginning point spelling did not exist, an alphabet did not exist, so the Word is nothing like what we moderns imagine, shaped by our literate culture.  “The Word” in that context of “the beginning” denotes something completely different than we imagine: more idea or reason than printed letters.  That original “Word” did not have form – letters, a beginning letter and a last letter with other letters between in a particular order.  It had no beginning or end, it was a divine spoken word: a Word to be vocalized and heard, more like music to the ear than a score upon a page.

God said, “Let there be light…”   (Genesis 1:3), and the miracle occurs that the spoken word – a sound produces light which is something to be seen.   Words still do that in our minds when we hear someone say something, we understand because ideas and images form in our minds from what we hear.   They do become “incarnate” in the synapses of our brain, but still they are not printed letters.

Of course in Genesis 1 there were no hearers, no seers, to give form to the Word.  The “Word” – “let there be…” – simply IS  the Greek  “o On.”

The Word was eventually translated into writing, the Scriptures.  Now the message became less ethereal and more material.  Writing became the first “artificial memory” which enabled words and meaning to be studied and observed and restructured.   The ancients worried about this.

Plato ( channeling the nonwriter Socrates) warned that this technology (writing – my note) meant impoverishment:

‘For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.  Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.  You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.’”  (p30)

Next:  The Word, The Information and the Bit (II)

The Transfiguration: The Salvation of the Physical World

“…Let us reflect on the basic significance of the mystery of Christ’s Transfiguration. It shows us that matter can be transfused into spirit. It shows us, that is to say, how material things – not only Christ’s face, hands and feet, but also his clothes; and not only the body of Christ, but also those of the three disciples upon whom the rays of light fall; and not they alone, but likewise the grass, trees, flowers and rocks of the mountainside which also share in the radiance that emanates from Christ – all these can be transformed, rendered luminous, filled with translucence and glory. The Transfiguration reveals the Spirit-bearing potentialities of all material things.

Christ, so the event on Mount Tabor makes clear, came to save not our souls alone, but also our bodies. Moreover, we human beings are not saved from but with the world. In and through Christ – and, by virtue of Christ’s grace, in and through each one of us – the whole material creation, as Saint Paul expresses it, ‘will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ [Romans 8:12]”   (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia in In Communion – Journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and the Protection of the Mother of God – Fall 2006, pg.4)

Truth is Not an Emotion

“When we are faced with the temptation of reducing our inner life to the level of intellect and emotions, as if the true spiritual life which is union with God were no more than deception, we need to hear the word: ‘And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God’ (Jn 17:3). This knowledge, or enlightenment, is the purpose of life. Light and truth constitute an inseparable pair, for we cannot find the way without light. Christ is the ‘Light’ and the ‘Way’, but in his freedom, man chooses between light, which requires a sustained effort, and darkness. St.Symeon the New Theologian expressed the heart of the problem in these terms: ‘He who is blind to the One is completely blind to all things. But he who sees the One is able to contemplate the whole.’ “ (Michel Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, pg 222)

Adam’s Expulsion in the Writings of Russian Saints

This is the 38th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is The Expulsion from Paradise in the Liturgical Tradition.

Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden continues to be a rich source of theological and spiritual reflection in the Orthodox tradition.  Here are three quotes from Russian saints writing mostly in the 19th Century, which give us a sample of how Adam’s sin entered into the consciousness of Orthodox people.  St. Theophan the Recluse (d. 1894AD) follows the tradition which we encountered in  The Expulsion of Adam in the Writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian (A).  He does however offer an interesting variation on the theme of spiritual blindness that we encountered in St. Symeon’s Eleventh Century theological reflections.

“This spiritual vision existed, one must suppose, in the first man until the Fall.  His spirit clearly saw God and all things divine—as clearly as with normal eyes we today see an object before us.  But after the Fall the eyes of the spirit were closed, and man no longer saw what it was natural for him to see.  The spirit itself remains and has eyes—but they are closed.  Its condition is like that of a man whose eyelids have become stuck together.  The eye is intact, it thirsts for light, it longs to see the light, feeling that the light exists; but the eyelids, being stuck together, do not allow the eye to open and to enter into direct contact with the light.  Such is obviously the condition of the spirit in man since the Fall.  Man has tried to replace the sight of the spirit by the sight of the mind, by abstract mental constructions, by ideologies; but this has always been without results, as we can see from all the metaphysical theories of the philosophers.”  (in  THE ART OF PRAYER, p 179)

For St. Theophan, humans haven’t become totally blind because they have completely lost spiritual sight.  The ability to see spiritually is still within us.  The eye of soul is still sound, but the eyelids have become stuck together in a closed position – that is what prevents us from seeing.  Thus the healing necessary is totally possible: the eyes are not missing, nor are they damaged beyond use.  Humanity however has turned, in St. Theophan’s reflection, to philosophy and various ideologies to help regain this spiritual insight.  Humanity has come completely to rely on its own rationality and ability to reason to regain this spiritual sight.  But in so doing humans remain trapped within themselves – the eyelids are not opened, and we become deceived thinking that we are seeing again, but remaining unhealed from the basic spiritual problem.   The human solution is like a person who cannot see out his window because the blind is down.  Instead of opening the blind, he paints a picture on it of what he thinks he should see out the window.   This is the end result of the Fall, humans in the modern age have become trapped in their own self reliance and individualism, and refuse to look to God for the healing needed.

St. John of Kronstadt (d. 1908AD) uses the story of Eve and Adam to reaffirm some of the basic principles of the spiritual life, especially those emphasized by Orthodoxy to its membership in recent times.

“Adam became so proud that he wished to become God and died for his pride; the Son of God humbled Himself unto death, and gave life to the fallen.  O abyss of humility!  Adam and Eve lost themselves through gluttony, the Lord fasted and died for them, in order to give them life.  They were disobedient, Christ fulfilled obedience.”   (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST  Part 1, p 296)

Adam is contrasted with Christ on three accounts:  Adam is proud, disobedient and gluttonous, Christ is humble, obedient and fasts.  The image of the Christian is the ascetic, the monk, and Christ is seen as the perfect model of the “angelic life.”  Of course, these are not being presented purely as monastic virtues, though they are that, but as a model of life for every Christian.

“This present life is a life of exile: ‘The Lord God’, it is said, ‘sent him forth from the garden of Eden’ (Gen 3:23); and we, all of us, must earnestly strive to regain our country through repentance and works meet for repentance.  Lord, ‘the desired fatherland give Thou to me, a citizen of Paradise me making once again’ (Troparion of the Burial Service).”  ( MY LIFE IN CHRIST  Part 1, p 186)

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise begins the human experience of exile.  This theme is continued in many ways throughout the Bible, perhaps most pronounced in the story of the Passover and Exodus in which the people of God are always sojourning toward a desired homeland – but life on this earth remains the sojourn, not the destination.   Now the way, the road to be traveled to attain this fatherland is the way of repentance, the way of the Cross.  This is the root of much Orthodox Christian spirituality.

Next:  Obedience and Freedom in the Adam Story

The Setting of the Sun: Reflecting on the Paschal Journey

Liturgical processions can help us understand that there is supposed to be movement in our spiritual lives – growth, change, repentance, improvement, sojourning, following, backsliding. Christ is the Way, the Church is the ship of salvation.   We are never at a fixed point, but rather always moving from where we are to the next point in time.

On Holy Friday we process on a great sojourn, like ancient Israel carrying the body of the Patriarch Joseph out of Egypt to the Promised Land (Exodus 13:19), so we carry the shroud of Christ reminding ourselves that this is not our homeland, but we are sojourners on earth trying to get to our homeland.  We identify with the itinerant Christ, sojourning on earth for the salvation of the world, but having no permanent home.   This too is the image of ancient Israel roaming the desert for 40 years – God was with them throughout this time, and only departed Israel after it built Him a permanent temple for that is when Israel and its kings also departed from following God’s way.

Pascha night as we processed back into the Church, we were coming into the light, the darkness of the world was being left behind – out there.  In here, in the church, all that mattered was the resounding truth that Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.  Despite all the problems of the world, which were ongoing even as we sang, we for one moment professed our faith to the world and against all  who would take away our hope and faith.

We walked into the light of the church from the darkness, like those who describe their near death experiences – moving toward the light.  We do die to the world and to ourselves as we move to the light of Christ.

The Vespers of Pascha are gloriously light-filled.  The crowds are gone and we are like the disciples on that first day of the resurrection (John 20:19-25).  They were avoiding the crowds, for they were very afraid.  They locked the doors to the upper room, and despite knowing the good news that Christ is risen from the dead, they are terrified of the world breaking into their midst.  They want to keep the world out.

Christians today sometimes do the same thing – they are afraid of what they see in the world, and they hate what they see in the world, and so they want to hide from the world and lock it out and block it from entering where they are.

What does Christ say?    He actually comes into their presence, despite the doors being locked.  They can’t keep Christ and His message out.   Our Lord tells them He is sending them into the world.  “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Jesus does recognize their terror and grants them peace.  However, not peace in hiding and avoiding the world.  Jesus came to go into the world and He comes to the disciples granting them peace while sending them into that world against which they had shut and locked their doors.   Jesus tells them to go into this world they want to be protected from!

We are to be the salt of the earth and Jesus says we must leave the pristine whiteness of the salt shaker and enter the world to have an effect on the world.

In our suburban church, during Paschal Vespers the doors are open, but no one is banging to come in.  Would we be afraid if they did?  Are we still like those first disciples trying to keep the world out of our little inner circle?  Are we still afraid of the world, and what it represents and what it might do to us?  Are we afraid that the people out there might think differently than us, be different from us?

Jesus comforts us, but not by telling us to remain separate from the world – He sends us into it, as He was sent by the Father.  Into a hostile world, a world which received Him not, which preferred darkness to light.  We are supposed to be following Him and this is exactly the world into which He was sent.

There is nothing going on in the world that Jesus hasn’t seen, or that He doesn’t want to deal with.  He came to take on the sin of the world.  He came to offer the world reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, healing of soul and body, and the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.

We have nothing to offer except what Christ offered to the world.  We have nothing to fear from the world, for Christ came to deal with these people, these ideas, these sins of which we are so afraid.

“Now that we have come to the setting of the sun, we behold the Light of evening.”  (Vespers hymn)

The Resurrection of Christ: The Day which Knows no Evening

Christ is Risen!  His rising brings life to the dead, forgiveness to sinners, and glory to the Saints. And so David the Prophet summons all creation to join in celebrating the Paschal festival. ‘Rejoice and be glad,’ He cries, ‘on this day which the Lord has made.

The light of Christ is an endless day that knows no night. Christ is this day, says the Apostle; such is the meaning of his words, ‘Night is almost over; day is at hand.’ He tells us that night is almost over, not that it is about to fall. By this we are meant to understand that the coming of Christ’s light puts Satan’s darkness to flight, leaving no place for any shadow of sin. His everlasting radiance dispels the dark clouds of the past and checks the hidden growth of vice. The Son is that Day to whom the Day, which is the Father, communicates the mystery of His Divinity. He is the Day who says through the mouth of Solomon, ‘I have caused an unfailing light to rise in Heaven.’ And as in Heaven no night can follow day, so no sin can overshadow the justice of Christ. The celestial day is perpetually bright and shining with brilliant light; clouds can never darken its skies. In the same way, the light of Christ is eternally glowing with luminous radiance and can never be extinguished by the darkness of sin. This is why John the Evangelist says, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to overpower it.’

And so, my brothers, each of us ought surely to rejoice on this Holy Day.

Let no one, conscious of his sinfulness, withdraw from our common celebration, nor let anyone be kept away from our public prayer by the burden of his guilt.

Sinner he may indeed be, but he must not despair of pardon on this day which is so highly privileged; for if a thief could receive the grace of Paradise, how could a Christian be refused forgiveness?”

(St.Maximus Bishop of Turin 467 A.D. from the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, pgs. 166-16)

See also  My favorite Pascha Video

A Sunny Day is a Sunny Day

It was -2 Degrees Fahrenheit  (-19 Celsius) when I took the picture of the rising sun below at Sugarcreek Metropark in wintry Montgomery County, Ohio, January of 2011.  The ground was white with snow; for me it was a three sweat shirt day.

I like seeing the sun through the trees.  The sunshine is welcomed by me.  The shadows created by the sunshine give depth to the scene which is why I stopped to enjoy it.  Photography as art is dependent on the contrasts between light and shadows to capture beauty.

The picture below was on the island of Maui in September, 2010.  The temperature was 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius).  Shorts and tee shirt were all that was needed. The white underfoot was sand.  And you know what?  The sun sets in Maui too – that’s what the photo shows.  It’s not always sunny there.  I enjoy a beautiful sunset wherever I am.

Hawaii.  Always warm, right?  Well, not quite.  Hawaii boasts a variety of climates.  Above is sunset at the beach, sea level.   In the picture below, still on Maui, we climbed to the top of the volcano, Haleakala, 10,000 feet above sea level.  Still Hawaii, sun was shining brightly.  The temperature?  A cold 35 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius)!    I had 2 short sleeve shirts on – as much as I packed for Hawaii.  The park ranger said I would freeze – but, hey, the temperature was above freezing.  I was on vacation in Hawaii in September – some had winter coats on – yes in Hawaii, but they don’t usually show you those photos in travel brochures.  We were way above the tree line, so no trees for the sun to shine through.  We were above the cloud line too, so we are looking down on the clouds below.   The photo goes to show that even on a cloudy day, that sun is still shining above.   Even at this height, just like everywhere else on earth, nightfall came.  The earth turned and the sun was lost from sight.

One more back in Dayton, Ohio.  Temperature was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius).  One sweatshirt was enough for me.   It was November, 2010.  One doesn’t even have to leave home to see true beauty in creation.  The sun shines brightly across the earth for all to enjoy.

The pictures above were taken at different times of the year in very different locations on our planet.   But the simple truth remains, the temperature on the sun’s surface was not at all changed by my location.  Beauty was there to see, and even to capture in a photograph.   And the sun shone brightly despite the change in latitude and longitude.  God generously and freely distributes that sunshine across His creation for all to enjoy.  Thanks be to God.  Even on the foggiest of days, that distant sun remains unchanged by our weather – it is we who cannot see that truth.  It doesn’t even have to be warm for us to see and enjoy the light of the sun.  Below the sun is there, though the fog tempers our experience of it.  This was in March of 2009.  The scene now exists only in photographs and memories – construction (progress?) tore all the trees down in 2010.

I saw some great sunrises in Charleston, South Carolina as well.  As the earth turned on its axis, the sun appeared to rise up right out of and over the Atlantic Ocean.  It was another wonderful sunny scene.  but the temperatures that December day in 2009 were about 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 degrees Celsius).  And whether (or weather) they like to admit it or not those sunny southern locals wore winter coats and furry hats as they walked along the beach.  I had my hooded sweatshirt on.  The temperature may be an objective fact, how we experience it is completely subjective. 

 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 11:7)

Repentace: Responding to the Light of Christ

Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”   (Matthew 4:12-17)

Note the call to repentance does not occur while the people are sitting in darkness.

The call to repentance comes with the dawning of the light.

When we are darkness, we are not prepared to repent.

Only when we begin to see the light do we see the need to repent.  The light makes it possible for us to see things in a new perspective, to bring about metanoia – repentance.

Repentance doesn’t bring about the light, nor does it cause us to “earn” the light.

Repentance is a response to the Light.  Repentance doesn’t earn us the right to see the light. 

The dawning light doesn’t chase away the need to repent, rather it brings us to repentance!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God;  all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.  The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God;  who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”  (John 1:1-14)