Orthodox Theology and Quantum Theory (III)

Beyond These Horizons, Quantum Theory and Christian FaithThis is the 3rd and final post in this series building on the ideas that John Breck put into his book, BEYOND THESE HORIZONS: QUANTUM THEORY AND CHRISTIAN FAITH.  Breck begins a much needed dialogue between Orthodox theology, quantum theory and a theory of consciousness, attempting to fill a void that exists between Orthodox theology and modern science and philosophy.  The previous post is Quantum Theory and Orthodox Theology (II).   Quantum physics presents to us truth about the empirical world which may open a door for a dialogue between scientific theory and Orthodox theology by adding a dimension to Orthodox thinking.  Orthodoxy historically formed a great synthesis between theology and the dominant ideas from Hellenic culture.  Now Orthodoxy begins to speak to the world of scientific materialism by using concepts which quantum thinking has brought to light about the material world.

Breck points out that physicists recognize that “…two entangled photons behave as a single unity…. the interaction between the two renders them independent of time and free from the influence of ‘local’ or immediately surrounding conditions.” (BTH, p 122)   If physical reality can be free of time and locality, why is it impossible to accept a being, namely God, which is also free of these constraints?  It seems to me that quantum discoveries have opened a door to allow scientists to accept an immaterial/spiritual world since immaterial ‘things’ exist in the materialistic world of science!  The material world at the quantum level reveals that it behaves both like matter and like a wave.  Fields underlie the existence of everything, indicating an immaterial basis for reality.  This opens the possibility of bringing quantum physics to bear upon spiritual topics.

For example, if one wonders how the person of Jesus can somehow miraculously convey salvation to all, we can think about entanglement in the quantum world.  “Entanglement permits the instantaneous communication of information from one quantum element to another…” (BTH, p 122).   Salvation can be understood as information that is being conveyed from the incarnate Christ to all of the other elements of the universe.  Our bodies share a common existence with the rest of the universe and salvation is a cosmic event touching all that exists.  It turns out that the entire cosmos is entangled with the Creator and Savior God.  God shows that divinity can become incarnate (God becomes “not God”) as creation and Creator interface and blur all lines of separation.   The concept of theosis shows creation is capable of being united to divinity.

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Breck himself takes this notion of the shared common existence of all things and sees the hologram as offering a scientific paradigm or even an explanation for several theological claims.  The way in which a hologram works is already present in the universe as understood by Orthodox theology.  “The world is a Whole; everything is interconnected.  Like a hologram, every part and aspect of the world contains the whole of everything”  (BTH, p 93).  This becomes obvious in the writings of St Maximus the Confessor for whom both “…Scripture and the universe should be contemplated as a [hu]man ” (Lars Thunberg, MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 74).   The whole is contained in the part and the part in the whole, this is how the hologram forms its image.  The human is a microcosm of the universe.  So, if we come to understand the human we can come to understand the universe, but not only the universe but also the Scriptures, for each contains the other and is interconnected.

Lars Thunberg explains: “Here the Pauline trichotomy (St Paul speaks of man as consisting of body, soul, and spirit) is also inscribed in the system.  This means that the Church as a building is now seen as divided into three parts, organized according to their sacredness: to the spirit corresponds the altar, to the soul the sanctuary, and to the body the nave.  But what is important for Maximus is precisely the reciprocity between them: the Church reflects man in his constitution as the latter reflects and represents the Church in man.  Man is in fact a church in the world, and the Church is universal Man, what Maximus calls the makranthropos.” (MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 122)  If we look at the universe/Cosmos as a whole we will see how it reveals the human to us, and so too the human reveals the cosmos.  The Church also reflects the human and the human the church.  All are interconnected, revealing each other and each containing a revelation about the other.  This is where quantum physics opens the Church to science and the scientific way of understanding the world.  The quantum world and the experienced world come together in Christ.  The science of the hologram makes the theological claims of Maximus even more clear to us.

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As St Maximus says:

“The Logos, God by essence, became man and messenger of the divine will.  He let the most intimate ground of the goodness of the Father appear, if one may say so, and showed in Himself the goal for which created beings were created.  For it is for Christ, i.e. for the Christic mystery, that all time and all that is in time has received in Christ its beginning and its end.  The union between the determined and the indetermined, the finite and the infinite, the limited and the non-limited, and also between Creator and creature, between rest and movement was conceived before the times.” (Maximus in MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 79)

For Christians, it is in Christ that the quantum world and the experienced world interface and are united.  In Christ the beginning and the end, the spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth, the living and the dead, the finite and infinite, divinity and humanity, Creator and creation are united and understood.  The theory of everything so sought out by science will fall short until it recognizes something beyond mathematics unites all things.

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Orthodox Theology and Quantum Physics (II)

Beyond These Horizons, Quantum Theory and Christian FaithJohn Breck in his book, BEYOND THESE HORIZONS: QUANTUM THEORY AND CHRISTIAN FAITH, makes an effort to form a synthesis between Orthodox theology, quantum theory and a theory of human consciousness.  This is the 2nd post in a series building upon his book to give further thought to how theology and scientific theory are related.  The 1st post in the series is Quantum Theory and Orthodox Theology.  In that post I suggest that quantum theory actually gives support to an idea not only of consciousness (the observer) but of free will.

Dealing with another of the surprising aspects of the quantum world, Breck notes that humans as observers of the quantum world affect the results of what we are observing.  “Only when we pin down a wave function through observation—that is, measurement—does it ‘reduce or ‘collapse’ to become an actual particle with a specific location on momentum.” (BTH, p 11)   This is one of the stranger aspects of quantum mechanics – at the quantum level ‘things’ have both the properties of a wave or a particle, and our observation of them or our measurements of them, determine what they appear to be – in effect observation determines reality.

Since the universe was unfolding billions of years before there were humans, theists have no problem understanding how God influences the created order on the quantum level.  God is the universal observer watching the entire cosmos unfold.  So there always was an observer watching the quantum world, from the beginning.

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But this aspect of quantum thinking also provides an answer to another question raised by both ‘faithists’ and agnostics.  That question is how it is possible that some see a miracle while others see an event as having a natural explanation, some observe spiritual events while others deny they ever happen.  Is there objective reality or is it all subjective experience?  Or as one of the apostles quizzed Jesus:  “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”  (John 14:22).  There is a quantum answer to this – it depends on what the observer is looking for.

Pseudo-Dionyius (6th Century) describes why it is that different people can come to different conclusions while observing the same event: “For as our sun, through no choice or deliberation , but by the very fact of its existence, gives light to all those things which have any inherent power of sharing its illumination, even so the Good … sends forth upon all things according to their receptive powers, the rays of its undivided Goodness” (THE DIVINE NAMES, p 87, emphases not in the original text).  What one sees, even in relation to something as big as the sun depends on the observer’s receptive powers.   What is the observer capable of seeing or understanding?  What is the observer looking for?  What does the observer believe he or she is looking at?   The observer effects what is seen or understood just like in quantum mechanics.  St Maximus the Confessor (d. 662AD) alsoMaximosConfessor accepted this as a fact of life.  “This fact is indeed of great importance, since for Maximus the Trinity remains a mystery, opening itself only to the believer” (Lars Thunberg, MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 33).   How is it that believers can see the hand of God while non-believers see no sign from God while observing the same event?   It is related to the fact that the observer effects what is seen, what is manifested.  It no doubt explains how a saint can perform a miracle – the events are shaped by what the saint is able to observe even when others can’t observe it.

Continuing with the more mysterious characteristics of the quantum world, Breck writes: “Qunatum superposition entails the linear combination or sum of two or more physical states that produce another quantum state … the duality that marks quanta enables an electron to act as either a particle or a wave” (BTH, p 122).  Such a superposition might be an explanation for John 20:19 in which Jesus seems capable of entering a room despite the doors being closed and locked.  “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”  The resurrected Jesus appears to His disciples both showing He is physically present and yet somehow despite having a material body appears not to be limited by the laws of physics.   He seems to be in two states of existence at once.  At the time of the disciples, no one knew the science to understand how this is possible, but now physics offers a scientific way to understand a ‘miracle.’

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Existing in two separate states of being at once is not just a quantum thought but a theological concept as well which was contemplated by the Patristic theologians.  As Lars Thunberg queries in his book on St Maximus the Confessor referring to the logoi (that aspect of God which is in all created things):   “Are the logoi transcendent or immanent, are they created or noncreated?  … In a certain way they are, both transcendent and immanent.  Yet, this immanence does not invite us to conclude that they are created.  … As realized in the existence of things, they materialize in the created order.  Yet they are certainly not themselves created or part of that created order in the sense that they are bound by its material appearance or actual realization”  (MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 138).  Many of the mysteries related to the incarnation of God in Christian Trinitarian theology require ‘things’ to exist simultaneously in two different states.  St Maximus himself stated: “Indeed, the scientific research of what is really true will have its forces weakened and its procedure embarrassed, if the mind cannot comprehend how God is in the logos of every special thing and likewise in all the logoi according to which all things exist…”  (MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 140).  Divinity is in everything and yet everything is not divinity.  All of creation participates in divinity and yet has a nature different than that of divinity.   Both the concepts of incarnation and theosis require a superposition of ‘state.’

The theology required to understand the Trinity and the incarnation is helped by quantum thinking as the world is not as ‘black and white’ as physics once imagined it to be.  Reality is full of mystery which is supported by the best of science today.

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Breck also noted that some of Orthodox theology seems to provide a bridge to scientific thinking enabling us to better understand Patristic theology.  “In classic Christian terms, that divine Force or Power which issues from the Godhead can be thought of as ‘divine energies’ that are manifested in time and space by the Persons of the Son and the Holy Spirit” (BTH, p 62).  In my my reading of this, ‘fields’ and ‘waves’ which the physicist’s say underlie all that exist also are the very place in which the non-physical and physical interact – the interface between the immaterial and the empirical of the created cosmos.   Fields and waves are not particles but are an immaterial reality (belonging to the created order) which we can detect and account for by mathematics.  It seems to me that it should not be a problem for physicists to imagine an immaterial reality or to know it can exist.  They will no doubt still see this in scientific terms as waves and fields, but for theists it is an easy step to accepting that there are not only inanimate forces but also forces based in a consciousness, forces that are part of a being, which are personal not just mathematical and whose mystery or unpredictability is because they are from a personal immaterial being.  All that theism allows is that besides a created immaterial order, there is an uncreated/eternal order which is the source of all that exists.  Quantum physics is showing us that particles (empirical reality) emerges from fields (immaterial reality).  Theism acknowledges this and sees the created immaterial reality as then being the interface with the uncreated immaterial reality known to us as God.

Next:   Quantum Theory and Orthodox Theology (III)

Orthodox Theology and Quantum Theory

Beyond These Horizons, Quantum Theory and Christian FaithJohn Breck in his book, BEYOND THESE HORIZONS: QUANTUM THEORY AND CHRISTIAN FAITH, undertakes a monumental task of attempting a synthesis between Orthodox theology, quantum theory and a theory of consciousness.  These truths are all related.  However, unlike in physics which seeks a theory of everything that can be reduced to a mathematical formula, Orthodoxy understands God as holding all things together and there is no mathematical formula which can contain all we can know about God (let alone all that God is).  Orthodoxy understands God to be beyond mathematics, which may be the point at which theology and scientific theory part ways.  God who is the source of everything, including all that can be contained in mathematical formulas, cannot be understood by an equation.

Breck puts his whole synthesis within a fictional narrative of a university professor who is giving a series of lectures on this topic to a group of alumni.  The story allows Breck to touch upon a few social issues which reflect the difficulties in our society of any professors attempting to bridge the human-made chasms between quantum physics, theology and consciousness.  One can, I think, read his work as an essay attempting to create this great synthesis.  Orthodox thinkers have a tradition of creating exactly such a great synthesis of ideas.  One can think of St Maximus the Confessor creating a synthesis between Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, Origin, neo-Platonism, Evagrius and Pseudo-Dionysius.   The theological equivalent of a scientific theory of everything.  Yet, history has shown there are ideas and concerns beyond what Maximus dealt with.  Quantum theory and scientific materialism were not even invented yet in Maximus’ day.  So modern Orthodox theologians have more to grapple with than Maximus did.

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Certainly today, if Orthodoxy is going to speak to the modern world it has to find a way to incorporate or synthesize science (scientific materialism and mathematics) with the Bible and theology.  Orthodoxy continues to look at the Patristic Fathers as brilliantly dealing with the Hellenic culture by bringing together Platonic/neo-Platonic thinking with Biblical, Trinitarian theology.  Yet it often fails to see that science today cares nothing about Platonism/neo-Platinism, and that scientific materialism is the competing paradigm with which we must deal in the 21st Century.  For modern thinkers, Plato, Ptolemy, and Aristotle – the ancient sages of the prescientific era – were not remotely doing what we understand to be science today.   The Patristic writers worked out a synthesis between the science of their day (what we would call philosophy) and biblical Trinitarian theology.  We have to do the same thing in our age in which scientific materialism is the prevailing philosophy of the day, and we need to work out a language which enables us to convey Scriptural truths to the best minds of our day.  Kudos to Fr Breck for making the effort to bridge that gap and try to broach the vacuum between science and Orthodoxy.  The Patristic writers were not intimidated by the genius of the non-Christian Hellenistic world and worked hard to show Christianity’s compatibility with all knowledge (and superiority to non-Trinitarian ideas!).

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Breck offers his understanding of quantum mechanics in the book and then relates Orthodox theology to certain aspects of quantum thinking to show how quantum physics might also be a help to our understanding of the nature of God and of salvation.  I want to take some of Breck’s ideas and develop them in directions other than what he does but still related to Orthodox theology.  I do not pretend to understand quantum theory, but his book caused me to reflect on other connections between the theory and theology.  I won’t rehearse in these posts all the definitions of the scientific terms and concepts to which Breck refers in his book.  My reflections may only reveal my lack of understanding of the concepts.  What interests me is that there is an interface between the quantum world and the world we experience, but the exact relationship between the two remains a mystery to us.  The same is true between the interface of God/Creator/divinity with creation/the empirical world/materialism, or one might say between the spiritual and the physical.  Also between consciousness and the brain in which consciousness can be measured/studied – the physical reality of the brain is not coterminous with mind/consciousness.  What exactly is the relationship between the empirical world and the immaterial?

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Quantum thinking has shown there is a relationship between matter and energy, between particles and waves such that the two are not completely different things but share in a mysterious way existence and allow us to experience reality.  Breck writes that quantum fieldsact and interact in such a way that they become excited to produce localized points that we recognize as particles.  … Even there where no excitations of the fields produce particles, the fields themselves are present, filling the universe with what could be called quantum potentiality.” (BTH, p 9-10)

Certainly, here we are dealing with that interface – what is the relationship between fields and particles?   Do these elements move from one state to another, sometimes being field or wave and sometimes being particle, or are they really both and we are the ones who can never fully experience reality in all its states but can only have limited experiences of all that is?  Qunatum physics tells us that what we set out to observe determines what we know about things at the quantum level, and there will always be some aspects of reality that we cannot know because of the nature of things.  Uncertainty is built into creation.

Quantum potentiality also makes me think that everything which exists (from the cosmic macro level down to the most micro quantum level) has potential to become something else, but this becoming is not predestined.   Creation changes or moves (however you want to frame it) and its actualization does not occur until it does – namely, until it is observed. What is true of everything in the cosmos is also true of humans  and has theological implication for us – we are created with this same potential to become dust or to become God.  That is how many of the Church Fathers understood humans.  We were not created as perfect by God but were created with the potential of perfection but we ourselves had to choose what we are to become.  Already for humans consciousness enters into the picture.  We are not simply evolving according to the immutable laws of nature but have consciousness and an ability to choose from all the potential choices before us.  Humans are now by their choices and decisions changing evolution on this planet.  The changes occurring are not merely random but are affected by every conscious choice we humans make.  We are able to shape not only human evolution but the evolution of every species on the planet.    There are natural limits to the potentials open to humans, but there really are choices to be made.

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Creation of Adam and Eve

As David Bentley Hart explains potentiality is related to free will, to consciousness.

“God, in his omnipotence and omniscience, is wholly capable of determining the result of all secondary causes, including free will, while not acting as yet another discrete cause among them. In one sense, naturally, this is merely a function of the coincidence in his nature of omniscience and omnipotence. Knowing not only all the events that constitute each individual life, but also all of an agent’s inner motives and predispositions and desires—all thoughts, impulses, hopes, preferences, yearnings, and aversions—and so knowing what choice any given soul will make when confronted with certain options and situated among certain circumambient forces, God can (if nothing else) so arrange the shape of reality that all beings, one way or another, come at the last upon the right path by way of their own freedom, in this life or the next. In a very limited way, of course, we can all at times do something similar. If I entice a child, whom I know to be in complete possession of her rational faculties, to eat a slice of cake when she is hungry by presenting her no other options except a bowl of sand and a scorpion, I have not made her choice of the cake any less free even in making it (as far as I am able to do so) inevitable. Even if I offer her another slice of cake as well, knowing that it is one she will like considerably less, I can still accomplish much the same thing.”  (That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2539-2549)

One doesn’t even have to think about God to understand this.  Think about the much sought after quantum computer which relies on elements being in two quantum states simultaneously.   The speed of quantum computing relies on the fact that all things are possible for an element in simultaneous states and so is known instantaneously.  One doesn’t have to rely on the binary ‘either or’ state to choose.  All possibilities exist and yet the possibilities still are finite and contained by the quantum computer.  It is a form of omniscience which does not predestine things. We come to understand how quantum thinking allows us to envision free will and consciousness as related to physics.

Next:  Quantum Theory and Orthodox Theology (II)

 

A Life-giving Myth (II)

This is the 2nd post in this series based on the short story, “A Life-giving Myth, ” by Fr John Breck from his book, THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  The first post is A Life-giving Myth (I).  The story is basically a lecture given by a college professor which offers some profound insights into the nature of Christian thinking and theology.  Breck argues in the story that there is a good and proper understanding of “myth” which is helpful for the Christian to know when reading Scripture.  Myth doesn’t mean fantasy or fiction, but is rather offering theology in narrative to help reveal the mystery of God.  “Myth” opens our heart and mind and the Scriptures to the truth which is being revealed to us in a language which helps get us beyond human limitations – which is made possible through art (icons), poetry (hymns), symbol and ritual.  So in the story, the professor lectures:

“People usually read the Bible as though it were a history book or a scientific account that details how God created the world (‘in six days,’ as bad exegesis would have it); how he chose and delivered the Hebrew people from an implacably hostile world; sent his Son from heaven to dwell as a man among men; tolerated his Son’s crucifixion as a vicarious death that frees us from the consequences of our personal sin, and by his ‘descent into hell’ destroyed the power of death; then raised his Son from the tomb and exalted him into heaven, a location conceived as somewhere ‘up there’ or ‘out there.’  These are the basic elements of God’s saving work, presented in Scripture and interpreted in various ways of preachers and teachers in our churches and seminaries.  The faith of most of us is shaped by these traditional elements, whether or not we accept them as ‘fact.'”  (pp 219-220)

The story’s professor says if we want to understand Scripture we have to be prepared to understand myth – how the narrative takes us to a deeper level and meaning.  For example, Old Testament narratives reveal Christ to us.  If we read the Old Testament only as history, we miss its point.  The texts are pointing beyond their literal meaning to the Kingdom of God, to Christ, to the Holy Trinity and to the eschaton in which Christ is revealed to all.  A purely literal reading of the text will cause us to miss the depths of what God is revealing about history and about creation and about what it means to be human.  Genesis is not trying to offer a scientific explanation of creation since in the modern understanding of “science” since science really only considers materialism whereas Genesis is offering a spiritual understanding of the empirical universe.

The story’s lecturer continues:

“This kind of perspective has also influenced – and deformed – our understanding of miracles.  Rather than receive them as ‘signs’ of the presence of the Kingdom of God within the world, we see them as exceptional occurrences that suspend or otherwise defy natural law.  In working miracles, we think, God breaks the rules to perform some extraordinary exploit that we request or that  he sees as necessary for the spiritual progress and enlightenment of his people.” (p 220)

Scriptural miracles are showing us that our world has an interface with the transcendent, with the divine, with all that is holy and glorious, with all that God is revealing to us.  If we only seek out the “magic” of the miraculous (defying nature), we fail to see the miracles are revealing God to us.  We end up caring more about the gift than the Giver of every good and perfect gift.  Miracles are a potential window into heaven, into paradise, where we can see God.  For Breck’s professor, what we need is to have revived in our hearts and minds a godly sense of myth, to help us see beyond the literal.  The empirical world can be studied by science because of its predictability and the laws of nature which govern the physical world.  The miraculous is not mostly a breaking of the laws of science as it is the breaking into the empirical world by transcendence.  We come to realize something more than the material world actually exists.  That’s what miracles do, but sadly and too often we try to change them into magic, a way in which we believe we can control these mysterious powers.  Just as quantum mechanics has revealed the empirical world is not fully grasped by Newtonian physics, so too Christianity points out there is mystery fully present in the empirical world.  And for many scientifically trained people the very problem with miracles is it leads people to want to practice magic to control things, and for them that reduces miracles to mere superstition as they don’t believe nature can be controlled by magic.

“A good example of mythological imagery is provided by the Exodus tradition.  This foundational experience in Israel’s history is recounted in different versions by the author of the book of Exodus and by the psalmist.  In both, cases, the Exodus from Egypt can be fully understood only as a typological myth, a pre-figuration of the deliverance of God’s people from captivity and death to freedom and eternal life.  As a literary trope it unites the two Testaments – Old and New, First and Second – so thoroughly that the Church Fathers could only conceive of the Bible as a diptych: two complementary panels that are self-referential and completely interdependent.  The major bond between the two Testaments is precisely ‘myth’: the unifying story of Israel’s call and saving vocation, fulfilled in the incarnation and saving mission of the Son of God.”  (p 222)

The Old Testament reveals the New, and the New  Testament is foreshadowed in the Old.  The narrative of the Old Testament prepares us from the events of the New, and the New Testament reveals the meaning of the Old.  “Myth” here is not fiction, but the narrative which ties together not only the two Covenants, Old and New, but also heaven and earth, the spiritual and physical, the living and the dead, Creator and creation, humanity and the world, sentience and inanimate, consciousness and existence.

“This explains the reason why the first chapter of Genesis must be read symbolically.  Its purpose is not to reveal historical fact.  It is to affirm that the one true God is Creator and Lord of all things in heaven and on earth, things he has delivered into the hands of those created in his own ‘image’ and ‘likeness.’  It’s pointless, therefore, to look for scientific confirmation of the creation events as Genesis describes them.  If for example, the account declares that the sun and the moon were created after the earth and its vegetation, it is primarily to counter worship of the sun by Israel’s pagan neighbors.  The author of the account never intended for it to be read as a scientific recital of actual events in their historical sequence.  The first eleven chapters of Genesis and much else in the Hebrew Scriptures can only be properly read and understood as ‘myth’ in the sense that I have defined it.  It is an example of ‘sacred history’ whose purpose is to draw mind and heart to recognition of the God of Israel as the one and only Lord of the universe, and to worship him accordingly.  Biblical myth thus unites history and eternity, and its ultimate purpose is to lead us beyond the limits of space and time, to open our eyes and hearts to transcendent reality and ultimate Truth.”  (p 223)

The purpose of the Old Testament is not mostly to give us history or science, rather its very purpose is to help us see God and to recognize God’s own activity in this world.  To look to the Bible for science and history is to lose sight that it is revealing God to us, it is using history to reveal transcendence to us, to open our eyes to the Kingdom of God, not to teach us material science.  This is how understanding myth and poetry can uplift us to see the transcendent God in the words of Scripture.

Science has tried to carve out its role as studying the empirical universe and thus limiting its study to materialism.  The fight between science and religion is between those who won’t accept the limits science imposes on itself and those who want to impose on science a narrative that is beyond what science is claiming for itself.  Some want the Bible to be “science” but it can never be that by the very definition that modern science imposes on itself.   The very nature of the Bible – a revelation from, about and of the transcendent – is outside anything science can deal with.  It is a narrative that guides believers in their understanding of the empirical universe (that which is the limit of scientific study).  Science is trying to reveal all the mysteries which are found in the empirical universe.  If science embraces an overarching narrative, it is a narrative that is limited to the empirical order which science studies.  Its conclusions can’t be beyond what the physical world can reveal.   Science cannot offer that narrative which guides believers in understanding the created order, though scientific discovery can cause believers to have to re-imagine their narrative because of the marvels it discovers.

“This was the approach adopted by the early Church Fathers, and it needs to be our approach today as well.  It means also that the Christian narrative, from the call of Israel to the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God, needs to be conceived as myth in the true sense: a narrative that opens eyes of faith to the presence of eternity within our time and space, and to the working out within that framework of our salvation.” (p 233)

The Bible does not limit itself to speaking about space and time, but rather its context is God and how space and time occur within the God in whom we live and move and have our being.  Creation speak about the Creator.  Science can and does teach us about creation, but it cannot speak to that truth of the transcendent reality to which creation is a witness.  The Bible speaks to us about the transcendent God who is ever attempting to reveal Himself in ways we can comprehend – which means in and through the created order.  We can marvel when science reveals some hidden truth which helps us know the Creator, but we can also marvel when science simple reveals something about material creation, when science unlocks some mystery about the empirical universe.  Believers may be able to use scientific insight to better understand God’s revelation, but science will never be able to do that.

Next: The Transcendent Myth

 

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

Creation and God

“If we perceive the spiritual principles of visible things we learn that the world has a Maker. But we do not ask what is the nature of that Maker, because we recognize that this is beyond our scope. Visible creation clearly enables us to grasp that there is a Maker, but it does not enable us to grasp His nature.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 17646-50)

Natural theology has its limits according to the Fathers of the Church.  Creation tells us there is a Creator, but creation cannot reveal to us the nature of the God who created us.  Our ability to read creation like a book of theology requires us to have more experience and knowledge than creation alone can give us.  God the Holy Trinity reveals Himself and His nature to us, a revelation found in the Holy Scriptures as well as in the sacramental life of the Church and also in the spiritual lives of the saints.  Even the Scriptures alone do not give us the full experience of God’s revelation and grace.  St. Basil  the Great notes about the book of Genesis:

In saying, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the sacred writer passed over many things in silence—e.g., water, air, fire, and their effects—which, all forming in reality the true complement of the world, were without doubt made at the same time as the universe. By this silence, the text plainly wishes to train the activity of our intelligence, giving it a weak point for starting, to impel it to the discovery of the truth.”    (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc.  Loc. 3593-96)

Scripture does not tell us everything there is to know about creation – it is silent about many things, but for St. Basil, this silence is exactly telling us there is much more to know.  The fact that Scripture does not give us every detail about creation tells us we need to search and discover the truth which is in creation and which leads us beyond creation to the Creator.  The Scriptures speak to us about the Creator, but they are not a scientific text book.  Humans have pursued a study of God’s creation and uncovered a great many facts and truths about the material cosmos.  What we commonly call science is really the result of human study into the truths of the natural world, the things about which the Scriptures are silent.  God reveals to us the natural order and allows us to discover the truth about nature, as when in the beginning God allowed Adam to name all of the animals of creation and God waited to see what the human would name the animals (Genesis 2:19-20).  God rejoices in our scientific curiosity and our search into the nature of the universe.  In allowing the human to name the animals God was giving us opportunity to understand the nature of each part of creation.

Of course some have decided the empirical world is the only reality we can know, but the godly realize just as there is more to know about nature than the Scriptures reveal, so too there is more to be known about creation than science can reveal.  St. Gregory Nazianzus comments:

“For we should not neglect the heavens, earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them and honored God’s works instead of God; instead, we should reap whatever advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers, not raising creation as foolish people do in revolt against the Creator, but from the works of nature apprehending the Worker and, as the divine apostle says, “taking every thought captive to obey Christ” [2 Cor 10:5.)”    (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 4004-8)

As St Gregory notes, just because some people might use scientific investigation to proclaim the empirical creation as the only thing that exists and so deny the Creator, that is no reason for us to completely reject science itself.  Those denying the Creator’s existence are wrong about God but that doesn’t mean that science is therefore wrong about all of its claims.   Science does know things about the physical creation not found in Scriptures, and we in the modern world live with the many advantages of science, technology, medicine and industry.

Scripture was not written to be science, but do reveal the truth to us.

“The creation stories are ancient and should be understood on that level. Rather than merge the two creation stories—the scientific and the biblical—we should respect that they each speak a different language. The fact that Paul considered Adam to be the progenitor of the human race does not mean that we need to find some way to maintain his view within an evolutionary scheme. Rather, we should gladly acknowledge his ancient view of cosmic and human origins and see in that very scenario the face of a God who seems far less reluctant to accommodate to ancient points of view than we are sometimes comfortable with.”   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3131-35)

God chose His own time and place to make His revelations known, and the people to whom He made those revelations recorded them with all the limits of their time and place.  As Peter Enns points out, God was willing to accommodate Himself and His revelation to the point of view of the ancient world.  God did not leave the ancients in the dark saying “no use to reveal myself until the people have a better understanding of creation through modern science.”  God was comfortable with revealing Himself to a people whose “ancient” way of thinking caused them to  understand the revelation and the creation in their own pre-modern terms.  God did not wait until the modern times to make Himself known.  It is we moderns who have trouble with pre-modern understanding, not God.    Enns continues:

“In my view, reading the Adam story as it was intended to be understood by those who shaped the Bible—primarily as a story of Israel within the larger stage of universal world history—is the most fruitful approach. The Adam story is not an obligatory nod on the part of ancient Israelites to account for how humanity came to be. The primary question Israel was asking was not, ‘Where do people come from?’ (a scientific curiosity), but ‘Where do we come from?’ (a matter of national identity).”   (The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3179-82)

Israel needed to discover its own identity to know its relationship to the rest of history, of the world, of the entire universe.  Scripture gave them that identity which helped them understand themselves in the bigger picture of humanity as well as the entire cosmos.  In understanding themselves, they could then understand creation, the empirical world.  It is in this learning process that they came to know their Creator and the importance of the created world in realizing their place in it.

“Creation is the accuser of the ungodly. For through its inherent spiritual principles creation proclaims its Maker; and through the natural laws intrinsic to each individual species it instructs us in virtue. The spiritual principles may be recognized in the unremitting continuance of each individual species, the laws in the consistency of its natural activity. If we do not ponder on these things, we remain ignorant of the cause of created being and we cling to all the passions which are contrary to nature.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 17632-39)

The created order, the empirical world contextualize our place in the cosmos.  Our task is to learn from both nature and the Scriptures about our role in God’s creation.  The scientific study of the empirical world also helps us realize our relationship to the rest of creation including our moral responsibilities since we are creatures with free will whose choices have consequences for the rest of creation.

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

(Psalms 104:24)

 

Math, God and Man

“God made the natural numbers,” the nineteenth-century algebraist Leopold Kronecker famously said, “and all the rest is the work of man.”  (Jordan Ellenberg,  How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, p 104)

Mathematics is one way that we can approach the universe around us – a way to know reality.  It is also an interpretation of reality – for math says reality can be known and predicted and described by formulas.  Math says there are patterns to be recognized everywhere in the cosmos, and that the entire cosmos can even be understood as a relationship of numbers and formulas.

We recognize the truth about mathematics and science in the Akathist Hymn, “Glory to God for All Things.”  There we sing:

In the wondrous blending of sounds, it is your call we hear. In the harmony of many voices, in the sublime beauty of music, in the glory of the works of great composers, you lead us to the threshold of paradise to come, and to the choirs of angels. All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards you and make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!  

 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!

Glory to You, showing your unsurpassable power in the laws of the universe.

Glory to You, for all nature is filled with your laws.

Glory to You for what you have revealed to us in your mercy.

Glory to You for what you have hidden from us in your wisdom.

Glory to You for the inventiveness of the human mind.

Glory to You for the dignity of man’s labor.

Glory to You for the tongues of fire that bring inspiration.

Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

Music is another part of the universe which is very mathematical.  Anything with patterns is mathematical as well.  That is why beauty is said to be mathematical – what we see or hear as beautiful is often patterned and thus can be described by mathematics.  The patterns and order of the universe are all describable by math.  And in Orthodoxy we recognize God the Trinity as the Creator of all the order in the universe.

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)