The Limits of our Times

“Chrysostom would be quick to admit that our present situation in the world must also be interpreted in light of God’s ultimate goal and end for human history. The present must be viewed in light of the end, and premature opinions as to the goodness of providence must be delayed until history itself reaches the conclusion God has set for it. Because on the end of history will finally clarify God’s actions in history, our present interpretive stance must be one of patience and humility. At present we know only a little.” 

(Christopher A. Hall in Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century, pgs. 26-27

The Word, The Information, and The Bit (PDF)

My recent blog series which began with the blog The Word, The Information and The Bit (I) is now also available as a PDF at  The Word, The Information and The Bit  (PDF).  The blog series is my reflecting on  James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD .

I wrote some other blogs also based on Gleick’s book which may offer some insight into what originally persuaded me to read his tome:

From Incarnation to Encryption

Knowledge and Wisdom, Fact and Truth

Information Time Change

The Americanization of America

I finished reading Gordon Wood’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.   An excellent biography of Franklin as well as a good American history book.  I had commented in a previous blog (Ben Franklin and the Americanization of Freedom ) about the opening chapters of the book in which Franklin was a loyal British citizen trying to preserve the unity of the British Empire.

The book traces the changes in Franklin’s thinking through time resulting in his becoming an American.  There is a parallel reality that America simultaneously was becoming American as well.  In many ways Franklin’s transformation happens as America itself is being born and transformed into an independent nation.

I want to offer a few quotes from the book  which were significant to me.  First, a quote about Britain, the nation Franklin loved but became totally disenchanted with.   Franklin criticized Britain for being blinded by

“… her Fondness for Conquest as a Warlike Nation, her Lust of Dominion as an Ambitious one, and her Thirst for a gainful Monopoly as a Commercial one.”  (p 166)

I have to wonder what he would have said about the USA today with our pride in being the greatest military power on earth and our constant willingness to make the military our main form of foreign policy.  Franklin saw in Britain what Eisenhower warned about in America – the military industrial complex.

The second quote deals with Franklin’s own self evaluation.

“… as Franklin disarmingly admitted, he  never had much success ‘in acquiring the Reality” of the virtue of humility, but he ‘had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it.’  Humility, he said, had not been on his original list of virtues; he had added it only because a friend had told him that he was too proud.  Franklin was well aware of his pride and its near relation, vanity.  He had begun his Autobiography by admitting the overwhelming power of vanity.  ‘Most people,’ he had written in 1771, ‘dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves.’  But Franklin knew better.  ‘I give it fair Quarter whenever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of Good to the Possessor and to others that are within his Sphere of Action.’  … Pride, he conceded, was the hardest passion to subdue.  ‘Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.’  ‘Even if he could completely overcome his pride, he would probably then be proud of his humility.’”  (p 207)

Wood points out in his book that interestingly America’s image and evaluation of Franklin through our history has changed as America changed.  As American attitudes toward agriculture, economy and capitalism morphed so did American ideas of who Franklin was and what he accomplished.  The notion of working hard to attain success amazingly enough was an American invention.  In Europe the rich did not work at all while the majority of people, the laborers, struggled to survive not to get ahead.

“… Franklin’s Autobiography had an inordinate influence on America’s understanding of itself.  Out of these repeated messages of striving and success not only did ordinary northern white men acquire a heightened appreciation of their work and their worth; they were also able to construct an enduring sense of American nationhood – a sense of America as the land of enterprise and opportunity, as the place where anybody who works hard can make it, as the nation of free and scrambling money-making individuals pursuing happiness.  This myth of American identity created during the several decades following the Revolution became so powerful that succeeding generations were scarcely able to question it.

Among the peoples of the world only Americans of the early republic, as their great observer Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, celebrated work as ‘the necessary, natural, and honest condition of all men.’  What most astonished Tocqueville was that Americans thought not only that work itself was ‘honorable,’ but that ‘work specifically to gain money’ was ‘honorable.’” (p 243-244)

We no longer even have a sense of how radical an idea these notions of work for profit were to the 18th Century.  And it explains how “profit” became a virtue in America, perhaps the greatest and most important  virtue in American mythology.  Something which no one would have listed as a virtue prior to 19th Century America became central to the American value system.   Whereas prior to the Revolution Franklin with many other wealthy people believed it was only poverty and hunger which caused the working class to work (thus poverty was a positive motivating factor for the poor!), America changed the attitude of and toward the working class.  For it came to pass that working for profit became so highly valued in America.

“…said Tocqueville, ‘all see quite clearly that it is profit which, if not wholly then at least partially, prompts them to work.’”

Making profit a virtue is from an American point of view, America’s success.   It is the reinterpretation of Benjamin Franklin as an American that helped spur this development along.

Ben Franklin and the Americanization of Freedom

Every year about the 4th of July, I try to read a book on American history.  This year I finally got around to a book I’ve owned for a long time but never read, Gordon Wood’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.   Despite my general love for reading, I’ve not found as much time to read as I would like and I’m only about ¼ of the way into the book.  However, my initial impressions are very positive and I’m enjoying the book.  I’ll quote two passages from what I’ve read so far both dealing with things Mr. Franklin valued highly.  The first is about the word “condescension.”   Ben Franklin strove to become a “gentleman,” part of that class of gentry, whose virtues he embraced and wished to instill in others.

“Only a hierarchical society that knew it distinctions well could have placed so much value on a gentleman’s capacity for condescension—that voluntary humiliation, that willing descent from superiority to equal terms with inferiors.  For us today condescension is a pejorative term, suggesting snobbery or haughtiness.  But for the eighteenth century it was a positive and complimentary terms, something that gentlemen aspired to possess and commoners valued in those above them.”  (p 38)

The virtue of a superior reaching down (condescending) to be with those inferior to him is also valued in Orthodoxy, as it is a very positive term used to describe Christ Himself who though God, condescended to become man in order to save us (Philippians 2:5-8).

The second quote deals with 18th Century ideas about what “freedom” means.   Dr. Franklin accepted and lived by a notion of freedom which was based in materialism.    It is wealth that enables us to be free, which makes us independent of the demands of society and of necessity.  Freedom enables us to become people of leisure.

“Ultimately, beneath all these strenuous efforts to define gentility was the fundamental classical quality of being free and independent.  The liberality for which gentlemen were known connoted freedom – freedom from material want, freedom from the caprice of others, freedom from ignorance, and freedom from having to work with one’s hands.  The gentry’s distinctiveness came from being independent in a world of dependences, learned in a world only partially literate, and a leisured in a world of laborers.  …    People labored out of necessity, out of poverty, and that necessity and poverty bred the contempt in which laboring people had been held for centuries.  Since servants, slaves, and bonded laborers did much of the work of society, it seemed natural to associate leisure with liberty and toil with bondage.  A gentleman’s freedom was valued because it was freedom from the necessity to labor, which came from being poor.      Indeed, only the need of ordinary people to feed themselves, it was thought, kept them busy working.”  (pp 38-39)

Franklin agreed with those who thought that poverty and hunger were the main motivators to keep the lower class working.  He however strove for freedom from such necessity.

So no doubt he would have favored a society which made the lives of the gentry easier and even more free from dependencies and necessity, but which would have kept the lower class working ever harder to help them avoid indolence, idleness and prodigality.  At least to the point I’ve read in the book, Ben Franklin does not conceive of freedom as belonging to everyone nor even good for everyone.   Freedom in Franklin’s thinking would lead the lower class into sloth and poverty.   But for the gentry class, freedom allowed them to live nobly and involve themselves in civil affairs.

God Questions Creation: The Conclusion of the Flood (a)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 9:24-29 (b)

Like Genesis 1-3, the flood narrative of Genesis 6-9 is as much if not more about us today and what it means to be human than it is a story about the past and the history of ancient peoples.  The story of the flood is fully empowered by symbolic thinking – symbols that God chose to use and men inspired by God recorded to teach, reprove, correct, and train us in righteousness and to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16).   It isn’t meant to be read just as past history.  The New Testament writers did not limit the flood story to being a record of the deeds of men of old. The story isn’t merely about the history of an ancient flood; it is the story about how God relates to a fallen and sinful world.  It is the story about God’s judgment of humanity, as well as God’s impending judgment of humanity.  It is a story of prophecy, preparedness, expectation and fulfillment.   God has a particular relationship with the world. The story is also about the future, and a Creator God who has expectations for the world and will hold the humans on earth accountable for what they do with their stewardship of the earth.  God doesn’t interfere with our free will.  However He does hold us accountable for what we do.  To limit the value of this Scripture to whether the story is literally true and to get bogged down in the literal details to the exclusion of its symbolism and higher meaning is to miss much of the importance of the story.  It is to fall seriously short of how Jesus Christ and the New Testament writers understood and made use of the story.   The story is a warning – whether it is history, a parable or a prophecy – the end result is the same:  we are told by the Lord that He is a God of expectation and judgment and we must conform to His will and His standards.  It is not our standards which count. It is not how we judge the story of the flood which matters, but how ultimately the story will be judgment on us if we fail to understand its deepest prophetic meaning.

Cuneiform unlike Scripture can only tell us about the past

How are we supposed to live as a result of the narrative and the lessons Genesis 6-9 contains?  The point isn’t “what kind of science does it teach us?”   Rather we are to ask, “What does it mean for our future and for our present?”    We don’t read it mostly to learn about past history or to learn about science. The story intentionally points beyond itself to a future reality – to the reality of God’s purposes, for the story tells us about God even with grief in His heart accepting the role that the sinful humans must play in His plan.    If the story’s main purpose is to teach ancient history, what difference does it make?  God promises in the story never to flood the earth again, so why should we care about something that will never happen to us or the world again?   The story is prophecy and revelation, it is a teaching story and it teaches pretty well.  The lesson is about how we are to live today in this world and why.   Why should we care about what God thinks?   How am I to act knowing there is a God who is Lord, Creator, Judge and Savior of the universe?   The believability of the story doesn’t lie in its literal accuracy of describing past events, but in its revelation that God is Creator, Savior and Judge, and that I am answerable to Him.   Belief isn’t mostly about accepting the literalness of the text, but is about “how am I to live as a believer?”  St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444AD) argued that Genesis does not tell us everything that can be known about the early history of humankind; rather it offers us only that which is “useful for orienting one’s life.”  The story is essential to us because it speaks about how to live today not because it teaches us past history.  Belief isn’t mostly about what I think about the ancient past, but what I think about the future and therefore how I am to live now.   “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the men of old received divine approval” (Hebrews 11:1-2).    Belief is the basis for our actions as we move into the future.  Belief is not mostly our position in regard to the literalness of the Bible, for the Bible itself never makes a literal reading of scripture the test for whether or not we are believers.  The test of our being believers is how we live – are we willing to love God and neighbor as ourselves?  Are we willing to live in this world always bringing to bear the Kingdom of God which is to come into our every decision and by our decisions witnessing to our faith in that coming Kingdom?  The story of the flood is important because of how belief shapes our daily lives.  “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25).

The story of the flood invokes in us memory of the opening sentences of Genesis 1 in which God creates dry land from the chaotic abyss of waters.  God imposed His order on creation and defied all the other powers of the universe- malevolent or simply chaotic.   The order that exists in the universe according to Genesis is the result of God’s own intervention in the abyss when he tames the powers of chaos to produce an orderly universe which allows life to exist.  Today some biblical fundamentalists, creation scientists and Intelligent Design adherents want to argue that the order in the universe is the ultimate proof of God’s existence.  Interestingly, as historian Robert Wilken noted, the Christian apologists of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries took a different tact when considering the laws of nature which seem to govern the universe.  “They did not argue that there is a God because there is order; rather they saw design in the universe because they knew the one God.”  (TSOECT)  Or as Hebrews 11:6 puts it: “For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”   In other words, those who fear that science and evolution disprove the existence of God are demonstrating their own lack of faith; they are not proving or even defending the existence of God.  The stories of Genesis are not as much an accounting of the exact history of our human ancestors as they are an exposition of what it means to be human, an explanation for the existence of evil, and a contextualizing of the human dilemma and story within the context of the larger narrative of the universe which is being told by God and still unfolding before us.

Next:  The conclusion of the flood (b)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:19-24 (a)

See:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:16-18 (b)

4:19 And Lamech took two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22 Zillah bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Na’amah.

23 Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say: I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

Unusual in these early genealogies Lamech’s wives are not only mentioned but their names are given – Adah and Zillah.  Some scholars think they are mentioned because they are disapproved of.   Is it possible that the author of the text so despised these women of Cain that their names are in the text for the same reason that Pontius Pilate’s name is in the Creed?  As can be seen in the other genealogies, not only are woman seldom named, often no woman is even mentioned with men fathering sons without reference to woman.   The first mention of wive’s names in the Seth lineage will come only in 11:29 with Sarai wife of Abraham. 

“…took two wives…”    The first mention in the Bible of polygamy occurs in the genealogy of the accursed Cain.   In Genesis 1-3,  God intends for the man to leave his parents and cling to his wife implying monogamy.  God does not command or bless polygamy here, Lamech simply takes two wives just as Eve took the forbidden fruit.  Lamech son of Cain is the only man in Genesis 1-11 to practice polygamy.  Later in Genesis Abraham will take a concubine to bear him a child, but that is not within the scope of our interest. 

“…the father of those…”   In some sense the text introduces an inconsistency.  Since all these people will supposedly be destroyed by the flood, in what sense they can be claimed to be the father of all tent dwellers, or musicians or metal workers is unknown.  Perhaps if different sections of the bible were actually written by different authors as Source Theory suggests, this source may be one that did not know of a flood tradition.

“Jabal…dwell in tents… have cattle”    This is the first mention of domesticated cattle.   It also is the first mention of any dwelling place for humans – tents.   Tents are the only housing mentioned directly in Genesis 1-11.  Noah also slept in a tent (9:21).  There are references to cities which one would assume implies some form of housing.  Genesis remains surprisingly barren of references to tools, transportation, furniture, housing, clothing, cooking utensils, food, weapons, commerce, or technology of any kind.

Jubal…lyre and pipe…”   The first mention of musical instruments.  Civilization and culture are appearing.  The fact that this is occurring in Cain’s lineage may indicate the scriptural author somewhat disapproved of this development.   Same is true of “Tubal-cain…forger of bronze and iron.”  This is the first mention of industry and technology.  The Iron and Bronze Age have arrived.  A certain degree of sophistication and technical knowledge is needed to make iron and bronze yet the text gives us little evidence of these emerging technologies.

“sister…was Na’amah”    This is the first mention of a daughter/sister by name. Among the descendents of Seth, the lineage which the Bible clearly favors and follows, neither wives nor daughters will be named until Abram takes Sarai to be his wife in  Genesis 11.   We are given virtually no insight into the domestic lives of these men of God.

“Lamech said to his wives…”    This is the only time in Genesis 1-11 that a man says something directly to his spouse or that any man directly addresses a woman – and he addresses them by name.  Adam spoke in the presence of his wife but the Scriptures record no words directed to her.    St. Paul commented that women should learn from their husbands at home (1 Corinthians 14:35), but Genesis might give an idea as to how hard that would be since the only man who spoke to his wife in these chapters is a vile and violent man.  In the more godly lineage of Seth through Noah, there is no record of the men talking to their wives.

“Lamech said…”   This is considered to be the first poem recited by a human in the bible.  Historical scholars do consider it to be poem from antiquity – thus representing the development of culture. 

Next:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:19-24 (b)

Three Sisters Aging Slowly Stand the Test of Time

3sisters2aYesterday I had opportunity for the first time in a long while to hike one of the county parks.  Walking through the Sugarcreek Metropark I came upon its most famous residents, the Three Sisters.  The Three Sisters are three white oak trees that date from about 1440AD.   They are long time residents of the area.   Last summer (2008) one of the Three Sisters came down in a storm, and lies impressively on her side not boasting like the fallen Ozymandias who lies lifeless in the desert sands, but in her demise being an organic part of the landscape and contributing to its continued teaming life. 


At left is the youngest of the Three Sisters who still is considered to be more than 530 years old.  She has been patiently looking over her neighborhood for a long time.   Though early European settlers cut down the forest all around the Three Sisters, for reasons unknown to me they let the Sisters continue being an organic part of the landscape.   Now they are part of the county park system.


One thing that interests me deal with genetics – I wonder if the White Oak Genome were done would the DNA from current White Oaks show any genetic markers different from this tree.  Though relative to Evolutionary Time, 550 years is a short amount of time, it still is a lot of time for any living organism.  I would be very curious to know whether its DNA would show any differences from trees planted today.  DNA does record some 3sistersachanges in a species over time, and studying this tree would give us a chance to compare the genome of the White Oak over several hundred years.  Such a comparison would not be looking at fossil evidence, but over aged but living DNA.

At the right is a photo of the oldest of the Three Sisters.   The area around her is now roped off – to prevent us from stepping on her roots, an activity that shortens the trees life!

The tree  has stayed right where it was planted in about 1440AD.

What was happening in the world at that time?

That was about the time the Little Ice Age began in the Northern Hemisphere whose effects were noted especially in Europe.  So the Sisters have lived through climate change and global cooling and warming.

It is about the time that Guttenberg was inventing his printing press – that certainly led to a few forests being cut down!

It is about the time the Renaissance begins in Europe marking the end of the Medieval Age.  The mighty oak is not as subject to changes as human ideas.

It is about the time that Constantinople fell to the Turks marking the end of the Byzantine Empire.

And a little closer to home it is about the time that the Inca Empire began its massive expansion in Peru.

The Three Sisters have outlived a number of kingdoms and philosophical ages as well as serious climate change.  But like all things on earth they are subject to change – there was a time when they were not and such a time will come again.