Time: For the Lord to Act

For the time is near (Revelation 22:10)

This is the conclusion of a two-part reflection on 2 books by Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics  and The Order of Time.  The previous post is  Rab – ½ R gab = Tab.

Rovelli deconstructs time as he talks about it in terms of relativity and quantum mechanics.  The song (quoted at the beginning of the previous post), “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?”, takes on totally new meaning in the world of quantum physics.  The answer is clearly “NO, we have no idea what time is let alone what time it is!”  Just as our observation deceives us when we think the earth is not moving or when we believe the sun is rising or setting, so too our normal experience of time is completely relative.  Time it turns out is related to mass, speed and gravity which is totally counter intuitive to what we think we experience.   As an old, slow moving fat man living in the lowlands, I experience time differently than the average child running in circles at the top of the Rocky Mountains – and its not just because I’m older and slower.

Ten years before understanding that time is slowed down by mass, Einstein had realized that it was slowed down by speed. The consequence of this discovery for our basic intuitive perception of time is the most devastating of all. The fact itself is quite simple. Instead of sending the two friends from the first chapter to the mountains and the plains, respectively, let’s ask one of them to stay still and the other one to walk around. Time passes more slowly for the one who keeps moving.   (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 353-358)

Those of us who have paid attention in recent years to liturgical talk know that in the Church there are different kinds of time – chronos and Kairos.  There also is the sense of eternity – that which exists completely outside of time, not bounded by beginning and end.  And in Christianity, we have the incarnation and ascension in which the timeless God enters into time itself blurring all distinctions between past, present and future and creating a unity in which eternity becomes temporal and  the temporal world comes to exist outside of time!

There is, nevertheless, an aspect of time that has survived the demolition inflicted on it by nineteenth- and twentieth-century physics. Divested of the trappings with which Newtonian theory had draped it, and to which we had become so accustomed, it now shines out with greater clarity: the world is nothing but change. None of the pieces that time has lost (singularity, direction, independence, the present, continuity) puts into question the fact that the world is a network of events. On the one hand, there was time, with its many determinations; on the other, the simple fact that nothing is: things happen.  (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 806-811)

The theory of relativity and quantum physics have shown that Newtonian physics [which to a large extent accurately describes the world we experience and was capable of getting humans to the moon] does not fully reflect the nature of reality.  Nature turns out to be far more mysterious than previously imagined.  Additionally, so much in quantum physics turns out to be shaped by the observer of the events – as if reality does not exist until and unless it is observed.   This aspect of physics should be far more intriguing to faithful theists than it often is, for it might suggest that the universe, 16 billion years old, was unfolding only because there was an observer all along – namely God.  The will of God might be considered to be that what God observes – not predestining every little thing, but allowing things to unfold in unexpected ways.  And in fact it could not unfold at all if there had not been One observing it.

…we must accept the idea that reality is only interaction…   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 207-207)

Heisenberg imagined that electrons do not always exist. They only exist when someone or something watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else. They materialize in a place, with a calculable probability, when colliding with something else. The “quantum leaps” from one orbit to another are the only means they have of being “real”: an electron is a set of jumps from one interaction to another. When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any precise place. It is not in a “place” at all.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 177-181)

Things do not simply exist – they only exist in relationship to other things.  Ultimately, they need an observer to exist at all.  Reality is thus relational, and certainly Trinitarian Christians would say that relation is part and parcel to God’s own existence.  God as Trinity does not exist alone but always and eternally as a relational divinity – the Three Persons of the Trinity in constant love with one another and now in relationship to that which they created and called into existence.

Rovelli for all his commitment to pure science can’t in the end resist waxing philosophically.  As he considers the human experience of the universe, he writes:

Lucretius expresses this, wonderfully: . . . we are all born from the same celestial seed; all of us have the same father, from which the earth, the mother who feeds us, receives clear drops of rain, producing from them bright wheat and lush trees, and the human race, and the species of beasts, offering up the foods with which all bodies are nourished, to lead a sweet life and generate offspring . . . (De rerum natura, bk. II, lines 991–97)  (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 677-687)

Even though we humans are conscious beings who influence and shape the changing world, we still are part of the empirical universe that exists.  Our roots are in the same creation which brought all else into existence.  Yet, we humans have a unique role to play in the universe because of our consciousness and our consciences.

Persian poet Saadi Shirazi. Captured and enslaved at Acre by the Crusaders, Shirazi is the author of those luminous verses that now stand at the entrance of the headquarters of the United Nations:

All of the sons of Adam are part of one single body, They are of the same essence. When time afflicts us with pain In one part of that body All the other parts feel it too. If you fail to feel the pain of others You do not deserve the name of man.  (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 218-224)

To be human is to feel pain, not only our own, but also that of our fellow human beings.  To be human is to be part of the created order – we humans are relational beings.  We relate to each other but also to all that exists.  We not only observe the universe and thus affect it on the quantum level through our observations, we also interact with it consciously and help shape the unfolding of the universe and of time, whatever time turns out to be.  We are capable of knowing things and knowing one another, and observing things from another’s point of view.  Our capacity for knowledge leads us to new relationships with the universe of which we are part, which we can observe, and which we can influence and shape.

as Lucretius wrote: “our appetite for life is voracious, our thirst for life insatiable” (De rerum natura, bk. III, line 1084).   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 669-670)

We are not merely the products of a random and indeterminate universe.  Though for science as Rovelli describes it the universe is mostly these random processes working out the relationships of the things which are:

A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies; of the innumerable stars; of sunlight; of mountains, woods, and fields of grain; of the smiling faces of the young at parties; and of the night sky studded with stars.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 322-325)

The passage of time is internal to the world, is born in the world itself in the relationship between quantum events that comprise the world and are themselves the source of time.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 372-374)

As Christians we know that we humans have evolved to the point of being observers of the universe and thus in quantum terms capable of shaping what unfolds.  We have realized that the inanimate universe is not all that exists, for we have come to know there is a God who observes us observing the universe which God created for us to know God.  We not only observe, we are capable of conscious choice which itself changes the universe.  We are not merely evolving according to biology, for we have evolved to the point of being able to shape our destiny.  And we realize we are not the creators of this reality, but participants in a reality which was created by God.  We thus continue to discover ourselves as relational beings – not just to the empirical universe, but to its Creator as well, with whom we are capable of interacting.   We are capable of experiencing the mystery of time, of experiencing things that defy scientific explanation or which exist beyond the confines of the empirical universe.

So what is this  “time” which we experience?   Rovelli says in physics it can be reduced to this:

if nothing else around it changes, heat cannot pass from a cold body to a hot one. The crucial point here is the difference from what happens with falling bodies: a ball may fall, but it can also come back up, by rebounding, for instance. Heat cannot. This is the only basic law of physics that distinguishes the past from the future.  (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 233-236)

For Christians, however, time is kairos: that which God called into existence so that God can act in that which God created which is not God but which God created exactly to share in the divine life and to become God.

 “God became human so that humans might become God.”   (Irenaeus)

Rab – ½ R gab = Tab

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yeah
And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
If so I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry

(“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” by Chicago)

I occasionally read science texts though I’m not a scientist.  I appreciate the sense of discovering truth through science, and the recognition by science that the truth it proclaims today may be only an approximation of the universe as it really is.  Future discoveries can show that what science at one time believed (even dogmatically!) to be true, can at a later date be shown to be incomplete or completely wrong.  So as I just finished reading a couple of books about the nature of time (Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics  and The Order of Time), I realize how little I know about the world I live in.

as Hans Reichenbach suggests in one of the most lucid books on the nature of time, The Direction of Time, that it was in order to escape from the anxiety time causes us that Parmenides wanted to deny its existence, that Plato imagined a world of ideas that exist outside of it, and that Hegel speaks of the moment in which the Spirit transcends temporality and knows itself in its plenitude. It is in order to escape this anxiety that we have imagined the existence of “eternity,” a strange world outside of time that we would like to be inhabited by gods, by a God, or by immortal souls.* Our deeply emotional attitude toward time has contributed more to the construction of cathedrals of philosophy than has logic or reason. The opposite emotional attitude, the veneration of time—Heraclitus or Bergson—has given rise to just as many philosophies, without getting us any nearer to understanding what time is. Physics helps us to penetrate layers of the mystery. It shows how the temporal structure of the world is different from our perception of it. It gives us the hope of being able to study the nature of time free from the fog caused by our emotions. But in our search for time, advancing increasingly away from ourselves, we have ended up by discovering something about ourselves, perhaps—just as Copernicus, by studying the movements of the heavens, ended up understanding how the Earth moved beneath his feet. Perhaps, ultimately, the emotional dimension of time is not the film of mist that prevents us from apprehending the nature of time objectively.   (Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Kindle Location 1746-1758)

Science moved us from a faith-based way of thinking to one which was based in evidence.  Science replaced the older idea of philosophy that truth could be found purely through reason.  Science showed that reason can be faulty because it might not have all the facts – there are many things hidden from our observational point of view – or the facts actually fit together in a way previously not imagined.  But science has also discovered that observation alone can also be misleading as it too might not have the complete picture of what is going on.  By observation people concluded that the earth was flat, the earth was not moving, or that the sun orbited the earth, or that the sun was the center of the universe (Copernicus proposed a heliocentric universe as versus an earth centered one, but his model was also not a correct description of the universe).  All these observations turned out to be wrong as we gained new information about our world and the universe.

During the great period of German idealism, Schelling could think that man represented the summit of nature, the highest point where reality becomes conscious of itself. Today, from the point of view provided by our current knowledge of the natural world, this idea raises a smile. If we are special, we are only special in the way that everyone feels themselves to be, like every mother is for her child. Certainly not for the rest of nature. Within the immense ocean of galaxies and stars we are in a remote corner; amid the infinite arabesques of forms that constitute reality, we are merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes.  (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 562-567)

Mathematics kept showing our version of reality just didn’t add up.   We still have the signs of these old beliefs in our language – for example, the sun rises and sets whereas now we now it is as the earth turns on its axis that we experience dawn and dusk.

Science thus keeps challenging the truths it proclaims.  Truth in science is not absolute but only as good as the data we collect and what we can observe.  Science recognizes there may be aspects of reality which we cannot know – some might say yet, but quantum physics has shown there are things we cannot know ever.

Aiden Hart recently wrote (FAITH & SCIENCE: YOKEFELLOWS OR ANTAGONISTS?) about the risks of trying to base one’s religious faith on scientific truth:

First, the danger of relating a “scientific truth” with one’s faith is that, while the tenets of faith are unchanging, the scientific theory of today might be replaced by another tomorrow. The scientific community is continually challenging its theories and trying to perfect them. Reality about the universe is not always the same as current scientific explanations about that reality. There is a saying: “The religion that marries the science of today will be a widow tomorrow.”

Hart calls science and religion “neighbors” in terms of truth, and one has to admit that as neighbors they don’t always share the same grounds for establishing truth.  There are property boundaries which neighbors have to respect and realize the limits of their properties.  On the other hand, Hart holds some hope that maybe with the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics that maybe Trinitarian theology will be able to give science some insight into a theory of everything.

Not sure I share his optimism on this, but I appreciated his article and would recommend it to any person of faith who wonders what the relationship of science is to Christianity.  Hart writes as a Christian iconographer.   At the same time that I read Hart’s article, I also finished reading two books by physicist Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics   and The Order of Time.    Both books are accessible to people not trained in science but who find science fascinating.  Speaking about the Theory of Relativity, Rovelli says:

The world described by the theory is thus further distanced from the one with which we are familiar. There is no longer space that “contains” the world, and there is no longer time “in which” events occur. There are only elementary processes wherein quanta of space and matter continually interact with one another. The illusion of space and time that continues around us is a blurred vision of this swarming of elementary processes…   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 374-377)

Hubble Telescope Photo

We are like an only child who in growing up realizes that the world does not revolve only around himself, as he thought when little. He must learn to be one among others. Mirrored by others, and by other things, we learn who we are.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 560-562)

Rovelli manages to show that time and space in the new physics are not quite what we commonly think about when we use those words.  Relativity has shown us that even something like time which we commonly experience is relative, and known only in relationships with other things.  Time is not a constant throughout the universe but experienced differently throughout the vast universe relative to where one is and what one is doing.

… an extraordinary idea occurred to him [Einstein], a stroke of pure genius: the gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself. This is the idea of the general theory of relativity. Newton’s “space,” through which things move, and the “gravitational field” are one and the same thing.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 92-95)

space and gravitational field are the same thing. And of a simple equation that I cannot resist giving here, even though you will almost certainly not be able to decipher it. Perhaps anyone reading this will still be able to appreciate its wonderful simplicity: Rab – ½ R gab = Tab That’s it.   (Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Kindle Location 131-135)

The truth about the universe summed up in one formula!  Who would have guessed the universe could be so readily described or reduced to a formula?

Next:  Time: For the Lord to Act

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.

 

 

 

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

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

St. Gregory of Nyssa writing in the 4th Century wanted to present a clear image of how humans are unique in God’s creation.  In his ON THE MAKING OF MAN, he shows how adept he was at incorporating biblical ideas about humans with what was the commonly accepted science of his day.  Christianity in the 4th Century was becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, providing everyone with a particular paradigm for how to understand God, creation and what it is to be human.  Gregory works hard on this new synthesis of ideas to show that the bible is compatible with the established science (philosophy) of that day.  Like most of the Christian thinkers of that time, they wanted to establish the superiority of Christian thought over pagan philosophy.  They believed that there is only one truth (Christ!), and so all “truths” are Christian truths.  These beliefs led them to work on a synthesis between the biblical understanding of science and humanity and the well established philosophical truths of the intellectual culture of the Roman Empire.

In the next post we will look particularly at some of Gregory’s understanding of the human body; this post will look at a few of his general claims and perspectives on the world, on Scripture and even on whether his ideas are in fact correct.

First, to one of his comments on the science of astronomy.  Note  in this comment that he reveals a lot about what the ancients believed about the world, and they certainly were no flat earth believers.  In the following quote, Gregory describes the size of the sun in comparison to earth, that the darkness of nighttime is nothing more than being in the earth’s shadow as the sun is shining behind the earth, that the earth is round and that they did think about what the space around earth  might be like.  All of this from a 4th Century Christian.   Of course they had to rely on scientific speculation and a logic derived from observation and mathematics – they had no instruments to prove what they considered to be true.

“For just as those skilled in astronomy tell us that the whole universe is full of light, and that darkness is made to cast its shadow by the interposition of the body formed by the earth; and that this darkness is shut off from the rays of the sun, in the shape of a cone, according to the figure of the sphere-shaped body, and behind it; while the sun, exceeding the earth by a size of many times as great as its own, enfolding it round about on all sides with its rays, unites at the limit of the cone the concurrent streams of light;

so that if (to suppose the case) any one had the power to passing beyond the measure to which the shadow extends, he would certainly find himself in light unbroken by darkness – even so I think that we ought to understand about ourselves, that on passing the limit of wickedness we shall again have our conversation in light, as the nature of good, when compared with the measure of wickedness , is incalculably superabundant.” (p 101)

What they believed to be true about the earth and the sun is surprisingly “modern” as the modern diagram describing an eclipse shows.  They were not trying to be superstitious, nor were they resistant to scientific claims or reasoning that could not be found in the Bible.  They believed that creation itself reveals the Creator just like the Bible does, but they did not assume that all knowledge about the Creator or about creation is derived from the Bible.  Some knowledge about creation and about the Creator is derived from scientific observation and from philosophical reasoning.

What is particularly ancient in Gregory’s comments is the willingness to derive moral lessons from nature and science.   So he describes space in terms of light, the sun and the earth, but then uses that as a model to understand the limits of human evil.  Those kinds of lessons the ancients would also have considered to be science.  They derived from observing the world lessons in what is natural and thus what is good.  Modern science would not see drawing such moral conclusions as science, and is much more willing to point out the endless exceptions to such thinking which also can be observed in nature.  It becomes a risky thing in modern science to derive moral ideas about what is good, normal or natural from by observing animal behavior.

St. Gregory appreciates that much knowledge is discovered through research, experimentation and observation.  Regarding human anatomy he writes:

“… any one too may learn everything accurately who takes up the researches which those skilled in such matters have worked out in books.  And of these writers some learned by dissection the position of our individual organs; others also considered and expounded the reason for the existence of all the parts of the body.”  (p 144)

Research has revealed knowledge that cannot be found in the Scriptures.   Humans are capable of not only dissecting organs but explaining their purpose as well (more on this in the next post).  And St. Gregory advocates study and research even if something is claimed Scripture.  While commenting on the bodily organ of the heart and whether it is the organ associated with human intelligence, he writes:

“Even if any should allege to us on this point the Scripture which claims the ruling principle for the heart, we shall not receive the statement without examination; for he who makes mention of the heart speaks also of the reins, when he says, God tries the hearts and reins; so that they must either confine the intellectual principle to the two combined or to neither.

Here St. Gregory shows his willingness to consider both what the Scriptures say as well as what science has revealed.  Simply quoting a verse from Scripture does not prove the point to him – proof texting still has to be researched by comparing the ideas to what else we know to be true about the world.   He doesn’t make a distinction between the heart as a bodily organ and the scriptural mentioning of the heart in a metaphorical way.  For him, references to the heart mean both things.  And though he holds to certain ideas which he defends, he is also willing to admit that his ideas may be proven wrong:

“Well, whether our answer is near the truth of the matter, the Truth Itself may clearly know; but at all events what occurs in our intelligence is as follows.”  (p 104)

There are ideas about the human body to which he adheres and teaches, and still he is willing to admit that his ideas when it comes to anatomy may be proven wrong.  He strives to work out a truthful understanding of the body based on scriptural statements and the knowledge from philosophy and yet allows for the fact that future research may prove these ideas inadequate.

St. Gregory does accept the science of his day.  He believes all physical things are made up of the four elements, Air, Earth, Fire and Water affected by the humors of heat and cold, moisture and dryness.  Such ideas were common in the ancient world.  So he writes:

“As it is then acknowledged by all that there is in us a share of all that we behold as elements in the universe – of heat and cold, and of the other pair of qualities of moisture and dryness – we must discuss them severally.”

This “science” is reflected even in the Orthodox blessing of water when the priest prays:

by Your providence You order the world. When You had joined together the universe out of the four elements . . . You have established the earth upon the waters. You have surrounded the sea with barriers of sand. You have spread out the air for breathing

The Church Fathers worked hard to make sense of the world, which included not only what they could observe of the physical world, but the claims of the Scriptures as well as the science of the philosophers.  Truth was the very basis of the Church, and thus all that was known to be true was incorporated into their anthropology and theology.

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

Insights from Science

I’m not a scientist and I don’t read science journals, but do enjoy reading the more “popular science” reported in DISCOVER magazine.  In the November 2017 issue there were two articles that had quotes that caught my attention.  These are a bit random, but here goes:

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(Photo by Seth Bobosh)

 Max Tegmark in an article, “Our Next Billion Years: Humanity only just arrived on Earth.  But its future is in the Cosmos” writes:

“Thirteen point eight billion years after its birth, our universe has awoken and become aware of itself. . . .  Although these self-aware stargazers disagree on many things, they tend to agree that these galaxies are beautiful and awe-inspiring.  But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not in the laws of physics.  So before our universe awoke, there was no beauty.  This makes our cosmic awakening all the more wonderful and worthy of celebrating: It transformed our universe from a mindless zombie with no self-awareness into a living ecosystem harboring self-reflection, beauty and hope – and the pursuit of goals, meaning and purpose.  Had our universe never awoken, then it would have been completely pointless – merely a gigantic waste of space.  Should our universe permanently go back to sleep due to some cosmic calamity or self-inflicted mishap, it will become meaningless.”

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The appearance of conscious beings on earth – namely us humans – has impacted the entire universe.  This is not merely the claim of believers, but is now acknowledge in the scientific world as well.  Humans by being not only observers of the universe but conscious and intentional participants in it have altered the universe.  Humans give meaning to the cosmos as well as derive knowledge from it.  We are not merely along for the ride with no ability to affect our destiny.  Humans do not merely observe, but even have taken our own development (our genetics, our evolution) into our hands.  (see also my blog The Antropocene: Are Humans Really in Charge?)  We can and do impact not just human development, but we now affect the entire world and our influence is expanding into space.  The arrival of humans, self-conscious beings, in the universe is awesome, and that awe has led humans to acknowledge their own coming into an already existing cosmos.  We stand in awe before the cosmic reality, but we give it meaning and purpose.  In awe we celebrate creation by worshiping the Creator.  Our self-awareness serves a purpose, allowing us to come to know not just the empirical universe, but the God in whom the universe itself exists.

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Not only are humans self-aware, but they are also very creative and have managed to take items which occurred in nature and reshape them into useful tools, which further advanced human development.  This is the segue into the second article.

2.  Bridget Alex writes in “Stone Cold Science”:

“Because stone tools are a forgotten technology, the purpose behind different styles is not self-evident.  Scholars in the 19th century devised names, like scraper, point and burin, based on shape and assumed function.  But they had no evidence that scrapers scraped or points impaled.  Unsure how stone tools were used, archeologists fared better at determining how they were made.”

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Something I’ve not thought much about in terms of archaeology.  Stone items are discovered which are thousands or tens of thousands of years old.  We look at those items from a 21st Century perspective and try to determine what purpose the item served.  But we are anachronistically reading into the item what its use must have been based on modern tools, methods and assumptions.  We really don’t know what the original intent of the tool was.  Tools might have been invented for one purpose but then through time it is discovered the tool is very good for a purpose totally different than its original intention.  The original purpose is lost in history and all that remains is what purpose the tool served later in history.  We may never know what a stone knife was originally conceived as.  All we can know is how the knife became used at some point in history – a use which was passed down from that point on to our generation.  Thus when looking at archaeological finds, we have to be careful not to overly read our understanding into an early time period. What we might use a tool for today may never have been conceived by the first inventors of the tools.

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Egyptian Deity: Genius

Naming Every Living Creature

“So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field…”  (Genesis 2:19-20)

“And yet man was created for this possession, he was called to it when in paradise God appointed him king of creation, invested him with the authority to give names to “every living creature,” i.e., to know them from within, in their deepest essence.  And thus the knowledge that is restored by this thanksgiving is not knowledge about the world, but of the world, for this thanksgiving is knowledge of God, and by the same token apprehension of the world as God’s world.

It is knowing not only that everything in the world has its cause in God – which, in the end, “knowledge about the world” is also capable of – but also that everything in the world and the world itself is a gift of God’s love, a revelation by God of his very self, summoning us in everything to know God, through everything to be in communion with him, to possess everything as life in him. … and again we witness to the world as a new creation, recreated as the ‘paradise of delight,’ in which everything created by God is called to become our partaking of the divine love, of the divine life.”  (Alexander Schmemann, THE EUCHARIST, p 177)

Pleiades Star Cluster

Today science continues to name created things in this world –  we name new elements, new bacteria and viruses, new species, dinosaurs and other extinct animals, as well as stars and even cosmic events.  We continue to do what God commanded humans to do from the beginning, to name things as a way of understanding and knowing them.  And, thus for those who believe, even science continues to be a means for us to give thanks and glory to God.

Faith and Reason

Though opposing faith against reason seems to be a modern issue resulting from a scientific mindset opposing faith, the difference between faith and reason has been long understood in the Church, centuries before the modern scientific age.   St. Isaac the Syrian for example sees faith as greater than reason/knowledge because knowledge really deals only with the things of this world while faith deals with things beyond this world.  Knowledge is thus limited to the study of nature, but then there exists the world beyond nature – divinity, spiritual beings, heaven, the soul.  The natural world has its edges and limits, and thus knowledge is bound and limited.  The life beyond nature is an existence which might be boundless, and thus is greater than nature itself.

“For knowledge is opposed to faith; but faith, in all that pertains to it, demolishes laws of knowledge—we do not, however, speak here of spiritual knowledge. For this is the  definition of knowledge: that without investigation and examination it has no authority to do anything, but must investigate whether that which it considers and desires is possible… but faith requires a mode of thinking that is single, limpidly pure, and simple, far removed from any deviousness. See how faith and knowledge are opposed to one another! The home of faith is a childlike thought and a simple heart… But knowledge conspires against and opposes both these qualities. Knowledge in all its paths keeps within the boundaries of nature. But faith makes its journey above nature.”  (The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, page 257)

September 1: The Day of Prayer for Creation

Poster Creation

Since the time of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church has kept September 1st as The Church Liturgical New Year.  In recent years, following the inspiration of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Orthodox churches have also kept September 1 as The Day of Prayer for Creation.   This year, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America issued an archpastoral letter on The Beginning of the Ecclesiastical Year & The Day of Prayer for the Creation, giving mutual recognition to the New Year and day of prayer for creation.   The Roman Catholic Church this year also joined the Orthodox in honoring September 1 as a day of prayer for creation.   The Church has always recognized that “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers” (Psalm 24:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:26).  We Orthodox recognize God is the creator of the world and the Lord of all the universe.  We are stewards of God’s creation.  As such, we have a prayerful responsibility for the environment.

Here is one of the traditional hymns honoring the Church’s liturgical New Year:

Creator and Master of time and the ages,

Triune and merciful God of all,

Grant blessing for the course of this year

And in Your boundless mercy save those who worship You and cry to you in fear:

Savior, grant blessing to all humankind.

(Kontakion of the New Year)

And a more recent hymn from from Vespers for the Environment, September 1:

Joy of heavenly hosts, Christ our Savior, Lover of humankind

Who brought all things into being from nothing,

And with ineffable wisdom arranged for each one

To accomplish unerringly the goal which You laid down in the beginning,

As You are powerful, bless the whole creation which you fashioned.

 

 

 

Soul, Mind, And Brain

Mind & BrainOne interesting question ponder is: What is the exact relationship between the mind and the brain?   It is a question for scientists, as well as philosophers and believers.  The materialist says the mind has no existence apart from the brain for it is merely a function of the material brain.  Philosophers and believers look beyond the material existence, to the existence of self or soul and what it means to be human.

The Fifth Century Christian author, St. Mark the Monk, reports on a conversation which deals with these very issues of the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds.  Christians of the 5th Century were well aware that the desires and passions of the body often went against what a person willed to do by choice.  That spiritual warfare is obvious to anyone who attempts to practice self denial or self control.  The ability to exert self control was often thought to be a hallmark of the human being who was not guided by animal instinct but had free will.

The attorney then asked, “Does the flesh have will apart from thought?”

The monk answered, “It does, in accordance with what the Apostle says: ‘We ourselves were once disobedient, doing the will of the flesh’ [Titus 3.3; Eph 2.3], and again, ‘What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh’ [Gal 5.17]. So, you see, the flesh has desire and will, and we are ignorant of this fact on account of the carelessness and assent of our thoughts. Because of this fact, not only those who neglect prayer, but also those who do not pay heed to their thoughts are injured.  (Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 4523-4529)

braingodWhat was obvious is that apart from the mind or the self, the body has a will of its own, which the goal of the Christian life was to control.  We are always trying to exert our spiritual will to govern the body, rather than having bodily urges control the person.  The mind in this worldview is not identical to the physical brain and the rest of the human body.  The body is capable of creating desires which might go against what the mind wants to do.

In a more recent book, Dr. Clark Elliott (The Ghost in My Brain: How a Concussion Stole My Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get it Back), writes about his personal experience with brain trauma and the effect it had on his life.  In the book he describes the effect the brain trauma had on his spiritual life and reflects exactly on the relationship of the brain to the self and one’s spiritual life.   To be honest I didn’t find the whole book that compelling a read, but I did find this one section interesting.

DIALOGUE WITH GOD AND THE MATTER OF SENTIENCE.

Since my very early teens, I’ve had the sense of a dialogue with God. Though I did not grow up religious, praying was easy for me. I talked to God, and God listened. God talked to me (in pictures, and through intuition), and I listened. Dialogue with the spirit was easy and natural: comforting, occasionally demanding, real. Almost immediately following the crash, this dialogue disappeared. I recall very distinctly entering the small chapel at DePaul’s downtown university campus, sitting alone on one of the chairs to pray for my students, and for my ability to serve them as their professor—something I often did. In a profoundly disturbing moment I realized that there was no longer anyone there. No one was listening. I thought: These are just empty words I am saying to myself. My prayers are no different than if I were reading aloud from an auto repair manual. I felt a deep sense of loss, but in a weird way. Though I understood, intellectually, about the loss of dialogue with God, and I felt quite disturbed about how sterile my life had become because of it, I nonetheless couldn’t quite “see” what was missing. It was like trying to remember a dream. I still believed in God, but viscerally it was an entirely different experience: there was no longer anyone there. When we consider the nature of my later recovery, and the many examples we’ve seen of how our internal world is so very symbolic in nature, it becomes apparent that it was the loss of my visual/spatial ability to represent symbolic relationship that was at the heart of my troubles with God. If so, then losing the closeness to God I felt pre-concussion raises some interesting questions about our connection to the larger universe around us. Could this sense of connection be located entirely in one of the visual/spatial centers of our brains? After all, in my case I had this easy faith up until the moment of the crash. I lost it in the days after the crash. I didn’t have it for eight years. I got it back again after treatment for my concussion. This is pretty strong evidence that it is our brains—our physical brains—that support this kind of spiritual faith. What this means is still up for grabs, however. As scientists, we have to allow for at least two possibilities. On the one hand we could take this as evidence that a sense of God, and the spirit, is just an artifact of the neural, and possibly other, programming in our brains—a purely physical uprising from a locus in our heads. Certainly there are researchers who talk about the “God spot” in the parietal, and other, regions of the brain that are thought to give rise to spirituality. Some have even have claimed to have created a “God Helmet” that artificially stimulates a profound religious experience via artificial manipulation of the brain.* On the other hand, we could just as easily imagine that these parts of the brain allow us to connect to a real channel of spirituality, and that without them we have simply lost one dimension of our sensory capabilities. That is, if we lose our hearing, the world is still full of sound; in the same way, if we lose our sense of God, that doesn’t mean that God is not still out there.     ( Kindle Location 1350-1373)

Obviously the mind and the brain, or the self and the brain, have a relationship.  One enters into relationships in and through one’s physical body.  And yet, we believe that the self is not identical to the body.  The self can have a relationship with God, using the body as a means of voicing prayer and of physically moving one’s body to correspond to one’s prayer and thoughts as in bowing in repentance.  The soul comes into existence when the breath of the Spirit enters into the physical dust of the earth to cause into being a living soul.  Acts of the Holy Spirit, touching a human will register in the brain of a person.  The physical and spiritual are not in opposition to one another but rather are united in the human being.