This is the 18th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Do We have the Brains to Deal with Ourselves? (II). This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will: Michael S. Gazzaniga’s WHO’S IN CHARGE?: FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.
One of the areas which the new neuroscience is exploring is the nature of memories. What a memory is exactly in terms of brain function is still not completely understood. While scientists are exploring the nature of memories in mice, how this translates to the human mind is not completely known.
“A mouse’s memory of a single fearful event is one thing: the complex associations of human memory, powered by a dense network of neuronal connections, is quite another. … More complex memories, like the recollection of an event that happened to you, are stored in many different areas of the brain.” (Dan Hurley, “Where Memory Lives,” DISCOVER, April 2012, 37)
Tallis commented extensively on how memories cannot be reduced to a simple biochemical or neuronal action. Memories are complexly stored over a wide area of the brain. Part of the wondrous mystery of the brain is exactly how the memories are stored and how they are recalled to form cogent images that our brain can interpret and use. Not only does an individual’s brain use these memories, but they can be shared socially by a number of people in meaningful interactions.
Tallis’ point is that human mental activity is not coterminous with the brain functions that bring them about. There is an immaterial element to thinking, remembering, choosing and creating. This is the “self” which the neo-atheists cannot allow because of their ideological commitment to materialism, not because it doesn’t exist.
Even the recent claims by some of the neo-atheists that science proves the brain begins to act seconds before the human appears to know what action it is going to do fails to take into account that a human does not just begin acting in any one second, but rather each human mind is composed of a countless number of neuronal connections – memories of past experience as well as inherited reflexes. So any activity we do is shaped by and founded in memories and thoughts that are already stored in the brain. We simply do not have the complete picture yet and so cannot claim that free will does not exist. Past choices and experience do shape our thinking, choices and actions – the brain doesn’t just suddenly jump into motion with no premeditation when it has a choice before it. Past experience, likes, pleasures, memories, emotions, etc, are all already at work in us and so predate every decision we make. The fact that neurons begin working and that scientists can from fMRIs predict what a person is going to do before they are aware themselves of what they are going to do, doesn’t disprove free will, it only shows us that our self and will is married to our physical bodies and cannot be completely separated from them. The science is telling us that a dualistic understanding of the human is an incorrect understanding. The notions of self, consciousness and free will are essential for understanding what it is to be human – to understand what has evolved in the human species, in the uniqueness of the human mind.
Jonah Lehrer writing in the March 2012 issue of WIRED (“The Forgetting Pill”) describes the efforts of medical science to deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Neuroscientists are trying to understand the nature of memories to see if a memory can be isolated in the brain and then in one fashion or another removed or neutralized so that a person can overcome their PTSD and be freed from the pain of those memories. Such “memory tweaks” raise a variety of ethical problems and questions: Who decides which memories are to be erased? When we lose memories we also lose lessons learned – who accepts responsibility for that loss? How do we deal with people who intentionally erase memories so as not to be held accountable for things they did? Who owns our memories – do future generations (our children for example) have a right to possess or inherit our memories? And legally a host of problems will be raised in courts when people intentionally erase memories which are needed as evidence (tampering with evidence is a crime after all) and witnesses will be invalidated by accusations that their memories were tampered with.
Again, the push for the use of science raises ethical concerns that science itself cannot answer.
Jeffrey Kluger writing in the 5 March 2012 issue of TIME applies some of the same neuronal questions to the subject of will power and whether science can reshape the will once it understands the neuronal activity involved in self-indulgence and self-denial. Here too the complexity of brain function has meant so far an incomplete understanding of how will power works and what can be done to affect it.
But the implication in all of these studies is that science one day will be able to know exactly how the brain functions and will be able to control or change that function in any/every human being. Whether we want science to have that power, or whether we believe that power will be harnessed by other social groups (government for example; or militant ideologues) for their own nefarious purposes, we come to understand that all of these issues in neural science have serious ethical implications for us all.
We need to pay attention to what science might wrought.
Next: Brain Life and Death
This is the 4th and final blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD. The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1) and the immediately preceding blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (III).
The printing press by making permanent records available to all had the potential to preserve so much information from the past that we might become so overwhelmed with it that we would suffer a memory loss – no longer sure as to what was the exact past as we can now see all of the variations and changes and mistakes of the past – nothing has been forgotten and so the past becomes buried under mounds of facts which we don’t know how to measure or weigh. Or it is possible that the new technologies in preserving more of the past make it more visible in detail to us, increasing our understanding of ourselves and of history?
“Another way to speak of the anxiety is in terms of the gap between information and knowledge. A barrage of data so often fails to tell us what we need to know. Knowledge, in turn, does not guarantee enlightenment or wisdom. (T. S. Eliot [d 1965] said that, too: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? …)’” (p 403)
Or as one clever wag said:
“The more we study, the more we learn.
The more we learn, the more we know.
The more we know, the more we forget.
So, why study?”
All of Gleick’s book is a study of information, whatever that is, it has become the basis of the technologies we use daily and are so dependent on – all of the computing of any sorts we do from cell phones, to GPS, to e-readers, to computers of every size. It is a fascinating look at the history of how our ideas of information have evolved through time.
“A ‘file’ was originally – in sixteenth-century England – a wire on which slips and bills and notes and letters could be strung for preservation and reference. Then came file folders, file drawers, and file cabinets; then the electronic namesakes of all these; and the inevitable irony. Once a piece of information is filed, it is statistically unlikely ever to be seen again by human eyes.” (p 410)
So the Word became flesh according to St. John, but in the modern world the word becomes filed existing in an electronic incarnation called the bit.
“It was once thought that a perfect language should have an exact one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings. There should be no ambiguity, no vagueness, no confusion. Our earthly Babel is a falling off from the lost speech of Eden: a catastrophe and a punishment.” But information theory and science says it ain’t so. “With or without God, there is no perfect language.” (p 418)
All information requires interpretation. It is the way of Christ who interprets Torah. It is God’s way. Any incarnation of the word requires interpretation. Christianity, if it is not so fearful, may come to realize that information theory tells us what we knew all along. Islam for its part will struggle with this much more for it does hold that there is the exact original of the Quran in heaven of which all earthly volumes are precise copies – though the Quran itself implies relying on a recited word, not one committed to print.
Babel was aimed at preventing humans from conspiring against heaven, not to prevent humans from understanding God who intended Babel to be a lesson.
But science in information theory sees itself moving in a particular direction. Dexter Palmer wrote:
“In a modern age without an Author looking down on us from heaven, language is not a thing of definite certainty, but infinite possibility; without the comforting illusion of meaningful order we have no choice but to stare into the face of meaningless disorder; without the feeling that meaning can be certain, we find ourselves overwhelmed by all things that words might mean.” (p 419)
This seems to assume that humans are isolated and alienated from each other, and from all others and from God – extreme individualism with no shared anything. But we share a world, and can share not only information but also understanding and meaning. We can interpret and debate because we can share meaning. Everything is not random. Humans do some things with intention and with intended meaning – in other words, we do communicate. It is also the nature of divine revelation, which is at the heart of Christian claims. The reality may be that there is a pattern to all that exists, but we simply lack the perspective – the God view – to see it. We are limited beings and do not like such limitations.
The English language according to Claude Shannon’s (d 2001) statistics has close to 75% redundancy. Certain letters follow other letters regularly, some combinations are totally rare. It is what enables Google to “read my mind” when I do a search as it “guesses” the next letter in my search. Randomness is not complete, order is both in the information and imposed on it. And Gleick can write a 526 page book about it which does convey meaning in written form to any who read his book. Even in the quantum world of unpredictability, there is a great amount of information conveyable to those who know how to read the signs.
Too bad that I read his book, and got my e-reader afterwards. His may be the last of its kind for me – I’ll look for “books” that are available on Kindle. It is a technology made possible by information theory.
“In the beginning was the Word…” And that word was not coterminous with printed letters, but as a spoken word had no physical form, no letters serving as bookends to contain it within certain symbols.
The word became print, but that never altered the Word which retains all of its divinity. Perhaps technology is freeing that Word once again so we will never mistakenly equate the Word with a written script, but rather will understand that the Word in its electronic manifestation (no incarnation, but an electronation?) will be much closer to its original revelation when God said, “let there be light.”
I did like James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD. It’s all about something essential to my own life, but which I hardly understand at all: information. I hope to share in this Blog Series some things I learned, and also to share information about what I don’t understand. Much of this latter part has to do with the science of how voluminous information is converted mathematically to signs and symbols which can then be readily transferred to distant points. Thus huge files – photographs I send over the internet – can be converted to a format that enables their wireless transfer from one destination to another.
As Gleick says, it is probably nigh unto impossible for us to understand what it is to live in a pre-literate culture. Our lives are so shaped by words and the logic which words allow, even for the illiterate among us. Even pre-schooled three-year olds recognize the signs and symbols of their favorite fast food restaurant.
Symbols additionally allow increasingly abstract thinking, and greater analysis of the data and ideas they represent.
“Logic might be imagined to exist independent of writing—syllogisms can be spoken as well as written—but it did not. Speech is too fleeting to allow for analysis. Logic descended from the written word… Only with writing does narrative structure come to embody sustained rational argument.” (pp 37-38)
As Gleick points out in pre-literate culture, the spoken word has no permanency. It dissipates quickly and can’t be analyzed very well. The meaning of the spoken word is also not completely fixed and though ideas can be shared with those who speak the same language, between languages there is even more difficulties in communication. Words are understood in context; the spoken word has no text to contextualize.
John’s Gospel introduces the idea of information with: “In the beginning was the word…” (John 1:1). Yet at that beginning point spelling did not exist, an alphabet did not exist, so the Word is nothing like what we moderns imagine, shaped by our literate culture. “The Word” in that context of “the beginning” denotes something completely different than we imagine: more idea or reason than printed letters. That original “Word” did not have form – letters, a beginning letter and a last letter with other letters between in a particular order. It had no beginning or end, it was a divine spoken word: a Word to be vocalized and heard, more like music to the ear than a score upon a page.
God said, “Let there be light…” (Genesis 1:3), and the miracle occurs that the spoken word – a sound produces light which is something to be seen. Words still do that in our minds when we hear someone say something, we understand because ideas and images form in our minds from what we hear. They do become “incarnate” in the synapses of our brain, but still they are not printed letters.
Of course in Genesis 1 there were no hearers, no seers, to give form to the Word. The “Word” – “let there be…” – simply IS the Greek “o On.”
The Word was eventually translated into writing, the Scriptures. Now the message became less ethereal and more material. Writing became the first “artificial memory” which enabled words and meaning to be studied and observed and restructured. The ancients worried about this.
‘For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.’” (p30)
Studies show that humans have a tendency toward optimism as they look to the future. And it doesn’t take any studies for us to realize people’s memory of the past is often murky. Tali Sharot in the 6 June 2011 issue of TIME magazine, The Optimism Bias, explores some of these ideas from the basis of human evolution. Sharot asks:
Where did these mistakes in memory come from?
Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.
So in this thinking, memory lapses may actually be part of an evolutionary survival tool. We don’t simply record the past, we re– member it, adding and deleting elements in a reconstructive process that also serves to help us survive and want to survive. We re-create the past to allow us to have hope for the future.
To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind. . . . It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations. . . . While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.
Death is a frightening stumbling block to thinking about the future. Yet even in Genesis where death is a bad consequence of human choices and behavior, the text does not despair about humanity. The text is always pushing toward the future, toward a better time and place which becomes part of the woof and weave of the scriptural fabric. There is exile from a better past, but a hope of a better future. Death is not an obstacle to what God is doing and what He hopes humans will do. God continues to work with His people and the people continue to try to figure out what direction God is leading them. By the time of Christianity, there is total hope in the defeat of death, and the promise of a blessed life with God. The mistakes and sins of the past will not prevent the better future from materializing.
While humans seem to have developed an unrealistic optimism about the future, some suffer from depression. Mild depression, which can be debilitating to anyone person, can serve a purpose within the human community: it can help us be more realistic about the future.
While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is.
This may explain why some people with mild forms of depression are often viewed as being pessimistic by others (those unduly influenced by an unrealistic optimism!), while these people often see themselves as not being negatively pessimistic, but rather as being realists. They are clairvoyant in a way that the unrealistic optimist does not like.
A final point that caught my attention in the article: when subjects in a study were primed with words that would make them think they would do poorly on a test, “the brain…did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error. A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time.” Those in the study who were primed with positive reinforcement had activity in the parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that are associated with reflection and correction. The brain “remembered” the mistake and attempted to use that information to help deal with the future. The brain thus generates its own optimism – it is possible to learn from mistakes.
This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues. It began with the 1st blog: Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury. The immediately preceding blog is Reading and Studying the Scriptures.
“The Scriptures were not given merely that we might have them in books,
but that we might engrave them on our hearts.”
(St. John Chrysostom, HOMILIES ON ST. JOHN 1-47, p 319)
Each Christian is to be an Evangelist – not writing new scriptures in books, but transferring the Word of God to one’s heart. Though many American Christians argue strenuously to have the scriptural Ten Commandments engraved in stone tablets to be placed in courthouses, the real place where we need to engrave God’s word is in our hearts. Then by our lives, how we live and treat others, people can read the Gospel in us. “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
“One can not just keep the Word of God in his memory. Men must preserve the Word of God, above all, in a living and burning heart. The Word of God is preserved in the human spirit as a seed which sprouts and brings forth fruit. This means that the truth of divine Revelation must unfold within human thought, must develop into an entire system of believing confession, into a system of religious perspective…” (Georges Florovsky, CREATION AND REDEMPTION, pp 26-27)
The learning of the Scriptures through constant reading and rote memory is not to dull the mind, but to set the heart on fire! Orthodox Christians pray before reading the Gospel, “Illumine our hearts, O Master Who loves mankind, with the pure light of Your divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Your gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Your blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto You.” We study the Scriptures in order to fill our hearts with the warmth of faith, the illumination of the Gospels, and the knowledge of God.
“If you wish to achieve true knowledge of Scripture you must hurry to achieve unshakable humility of heart…Then, having banished all worldly concerns and thoughts, strive in every way to devote yourself constantly to the sacred reading so that continuous meditation will seep into your soul and, as it were, will shape it to its image. Somehow it will form that ‘ark’ of the Scriptures (cf. Heb 9:4-5) and will contain the two stone tablets, that is, the perpetual strength of the two testaments. There will be the golden urn which is a pure and unstained memory and which will preserve firmly within itself the everlasting manna, that is the eternal, heavenly sweetness of spiritual meaning and of that bread which belongs to the angels…Therefore the sequences of holy Scripture must be committed to memory and they must be pondered ceaselessly. Such meditation will profit us in two ways. First, when the thrust of the mind is occupied by the study and perusal of the readings it will, of necessity, avoid being taken over by the snares of dangerous thoughts. Second, as we strive with constant repetition to commit these readings to memory, we have not the time to understand them because our minds have been occupied. But later when we are free from the attractions of all that we do and see and, especially, when we are quietly meditating during the hours of darkness, we think them over and we understand them more closely. And so it happens that when we are at ease and when, as it were, we are plunged into the dullness of sleep, the hidden meanings, of which we were utterly unaware during our waking hours, and the sense of them are bared to our minds.” (John Cassian Conferences. The Classics of Western Spirituality. pgs. 164-165)
We read the Bible to ignite that light of faith in our hearts which guides us through the darkness into the Light.
Genesis 10:1 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the flood. 2 The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. 3 The sons of Gomer: Ash’kenaz, Riphath, and Togar’mah. 4 The sons of Javan: Eli’shah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Do’danim. 5 From these the coastland peoples spread. These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations. 6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. 7 The sons of Cush: Seba, Hav’ilah, Sabtah, Ra’amah, and Sab’teca. The sons of Ra’amah: Sheba and Dedan. 8 Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Ba’bel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nin’eveh, Reho’both-Ir, Calah, and 12 Resen between Nin’eveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13 Egypt became the father of Ludim, An’amim, Leha’bim, Naph-tu’him, 14 Pathru’sim, Caslu’him (whence came the Philistines), and Caph’torim.
Since according to the Genesis story of the flood all humans except Noah, his wife, his sons, and his daughters-in-law drowned, it really is through Noah that all the nations of the world come to exist as was noted in Genesis 9:19. All other lines of humans – including Cain’s were destroyed by the flood. So whatever accomplishments they did, or skills they learned or cities they built, would have died with them. Here in Genesis 10 comes the story of the nations – of populating the world with different people all of the same stock. This chapter does offer a family tree for all of the known people of the ancient Jewish world.
Japheth’s descendents include those people who occupy Asia Minor and territories to the East.
“…each with his own language…” This text seems to suggest the occurrence of diverse languages and nations was simply a natural process of expansion. The text seems unaware of the tower of Ba’bel story (Genesis 11) which explains the confusion of tongues among humans as a result of human arrogance and sin. Here at the beginning of Genesis 10 the multiplication of language has nothing to do with punishment but with the diversification of humanity as it spread throughout the world. This again gives suggestion that Source Theory is correct – there was more than one author of the Genesis text that we have today, or at least the one author/editor of the text blended different stories into the final text.
The list is fathers and sons. Wives/mothers are not even mentioned let alone named. No sisters are mentioned either making one wonder where the women who gave birth to all of these sons were coming from.
Ham gives birth to the founders of many great nations and kingdoms which included Arabia, Egypt and Africa. Because Ham defiled Noah, is there some sense of prejudice indicated in the fact that Ham’s descendents include Arabs and Africans? The “Land of Ham” will become in the Old Testament another way for the Israelites to speak of Egypt. Canaan who is cursed into servitude to his uncles has plenty of brothers to witness his enslavement. Ham’s other sons are not cursed by Noah and show great promise and success in starting great nations.
“Nimrod a mighty hunter” This is the first mention in Genesis of a hunter and the first indication that humans are killing animals for food. Hunting would by implication also suggest the development of hunting tools to capture and kill animals, which would be the precursor to weapons of war. Nimrod the hunter begins the Kingdom of Ba’bel, which is the ancient Jewish reference for Babylon. Indeed one day the Babylonians will hunt down the Jews.
The genealogies. Scholars have noted that Americans (with their disinterest in history and their constant striving for what is new, ever looking hopefully to the future) have a hard time grasping the biblical sense of time. In the Old Testament one is always facing the past. The past is what is before us, it is the only thing that we can see for it already exists and is known. The future on the other hand does not exist yet, so it cannot be seen; the future in this thinking is thus always behind us, out of our vision, the unknown, waiting to catch us by surprise. The genealogies help keep the past right in front of us. The Old Testament keeps us looking to the past in order to help us see truth and to give us hope for the future. The genealogies put before us what we can see – that which already exists/existed. They connect us to all that is real and known, and we learn from history about ourselves and our mistakes. In this thinking what can be seen is what we can remember, and what we can remember is what we can truly see. Remembrance and seeing are thus the same thing.
The Divine Liturgy is the Christian remembrance (anamnesis). When we remember as Christians we see what we remember, we make Christ present before us – Christ crucified and Christ risen. The priest prays at the Liturgy: “Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming.” We remember in order to see the reality of God in the world. We remember what God has done so that we can have hope that God will act again as He has done in the past. The future does not yet exist for us ephemeral beings, so we cannot see what God will do, but we can see clearly what He has done and from this know where He is leading us. Remembering the past is thus the firm foundation for hope and faith. We call to remembrance salvation, which means we can see salvation – what God has done – for it is real, even if it is but the tip of the iceberg, the foretaste of the kingdom which is to come. The Christian Liturgy, especially that of St. Basil the Great, is a true calling to remembrance all that God has done for us so that we can see salvation, see God’s hand in the world, see the breaking into the world of the Kingdom of God. Knowing what God has done is the firm foundation for our hope in what God is going to do. Yet it is happening in time, and so we often experience it as happening way too slowly. But the reality of salvation is that we need to fit eternity and divinity into our world, into that which is “not God”, into our lives, into our hearts. That takes time – not because God needs time, but we do and we can only receive things in time. God enters the world through the incarnation – it took the history of humanity to bring about the Theotokos, the one who could receive God into her womb. Then it took nine more months for the Incarnate Word to be born and a lifetime for him to mature; it now additionally takes the time of the Holy Spirit to allow God’s Kingdom to be revealed in the world. Each Liturgy reminds us of what has happened, so that we can see it, and understand it is coming. We are to be thankful for what we know is coming even if it also requires infinite patience on our part. We remember the past not to recapture some Golden Age, but rather as Fr. John Behr says, to help us envision the future. What we can see of what God has done speaks to us about how much more glorious is what He is doing. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). As St. Paul has it, “one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Genesis 9:18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. 20 Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; 21 and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
Shem, son of Noah, holds special honor in both the biblical tradition and in the Orthodox sacramental tradition. In the Wedding Service of the Crowning, we invoke this blessing on the wedding couple: “Remember them, O Lord our God, as You remembered Enoch, Shem, Elijah.” Shem is remembered between the two men of the Old Testament who were taken by God and whose deaths are not recorded in the Scriptures. God’s remembering His saints is the same as His blessing them and safely protecting them from harm and evil. Somewhat unexpectedly the survivors of the flood are invoked several times in the Sacrament of Marriage. In the Wedding service we want God to bless the wedding couple and to see their righteousness as He saw the righteousness of Enoch, Shem and Elijah. Both Noah and Shem, two men who found refuge in the ark from the cataclysmic flood which destroyed the world, are both invoked in the prayers of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. The story of the flood is used in the Orthodox Church to invoke blessings on newlyweds. A good trivia question: In which sacrament of the Orthodox Church are the people on Noah’s ark remembered? I wonder how many would guess that Noah and flood are so connected to the sacrament of marriage. What does it say about our understanding of life for newlyweds in this world?
“Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard …“ Genesis 4:2 told us that Cain was a tiller of the ground, so in what sense is Noah the first tiller of the soil? The story has him being the first to have a vineyard, and some think the story only implies that he was the first husbandman. We had not yet been told that humans ate grapes, but apparently they have already learned the art of fermenting the grapes. This is also the first mention of wine and of drunkenness. Prior to this the only wickedness detailed by Genesis was violence. Though no mention of wine occurred before this reference, obviously Noah acted with intention in planting a vineyard – he somehow knew the product he wanted to produce. (Chrysostom excuses Noah thinking Noah was [pleasantly] surprised by the drink he could produce from grapes. St. John assumes Noah was depressed as every where he looked there would have been the dead carcasses of humans and animals left by the flood). The text has so far not spoken about or against alcohol nor alcohol abuse (drunkenness). God has not warned the humans of the potential dangers of alcohol abuse just as He had not warned Eve and Adam about the dangers of talking to the serpent. Does God think experimenting, discovery, learning by experience, and mastering desire are valuable for His free willed humans? Has God continued to assume the humans would practice self control? The Bible is circumspect in detailing what happened here but certainly implies that Ham in seeing his drunken father naked perhaps saw something lewd but more likely engaged in a lewd act far beyond voyeurism. Noah upon waking from his drunken stupor immediately knew what his son “had done to him” (:24). Noah wouldn’t have known if Ham had only looked – he felt or could see that something had been done to him. The text modestly avoids detailing what may have been an incestuous and homosexual act.
“he drank of the wine, and became drunk…” According to Psalm 104:14, God gave “wine to gladden the heart of man.” Wine is meant to serve a good purpose, but like the rest of creation it is subject to abuse by fallen humanity.
Chrysostom remarks that after the flood things were totally different for Noah – he is introduced to a carnivorous diet, and discovers wine as a new drink. Chrysostom goes on to say that wine was the first medicine invented by humans – it helped reduce the pain which Noah felt by realizing his world had been destroyed by the flood.
Genesis 8:1 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2 the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3 and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters had abated; 4 and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ar’arat. 5 And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.
“God remembered Noah…” We do pray in our church that God will remember us in His kingdom. To be totally forgotten by God is a fate worse than death, for it means non-existence. We also pray that He eternally remember those who have died. We pray that God will remember us but that he will not remember our sins (Psalm 25:7, Isaiah 43:18, 64:9).
“God remembered Noah…” Here is a trivia question: In which Orthodox Sacrament is Noah and the ark explicitly mentioned? Here is the quote from the service: “Preserve them, O Lord our God, as You preserved Noah in the ark.” It is in the Wedding Service of Crowning that we remember and invoke Noah and the ark as we ask God to bless the couple being united in marriage. One may wonder about the connection of Noah to marriage – he was married but his wife’s name is not even mentioned and she plays absolutely no role in the story other than being one of those preserved by God in the ark. She is not known to have given birth to children after the flood so it is really her sons which preserve humanity and repopulate the earth. So does the wedding service imply that marriage is like a devastating storm and flood? The imagery of Noah is invoked purely as someone whom God preserved from evil and destruction which is what we pray He will do for the newlywed. The wedding service in Orthodoxy is very cognizant of the fact that life sometimes throws at every married couple as well as at each of us devastating contingencies. Marriage cannot protect us from these life threatening problems and sudden disasters – only God can help us when one of life’s tidal waves overwhelms us.
Noah is also mentioned in the Service of the Great Blessing of Water, where we might more expect to find his name: “For You are our God, who through water and the Spirit, have renewed our nature grown old through sin. You are our God, who with water drowned sin in the days of Noah.”
“God remembered Noah…” Was there ever a danger that God who had ordered Noah to build the ark and had him work on it for 100 years and had him take his family and the various species of animals into it, might forget about Noah? Does the story suggest that God was tempted with simply letting the chaos overwhelm the cosmos? Or that the destructive forces of the cataclysm were so appeasing His anger with humanity that it was lulling God to sleep with indifference towards His creatures? The God whose heart was pained by humanity still has room in His heart for the righteous Noah. Whether God “snapped back” to remembrance or whether he remembered Noah all along, when He thinks about one righteous human God is moved to save that person.
Chrysostom tells his flock not to overly think about or try to rationally approach the story which surpasses our credulity. Questioning the literal facts and doubting their veracity obviously occurred to the Christians of the 4th Century. Such questions of faith are not just the result of secular humanism and science. He acknowledges that the story does not tell us how the humans and animals could have survived being shut up in a big box for so many days. He acknowledges drinking water would have been a problem, the unbearable stench would have been a problem, the lack of fresh air would have done them all in, the wild animals would not have reacted peaceably to being housed in the bowels of the ark as this is totally unnatural to them and many don’t do well in captivity. He advises his faithful not to focus on the literal details but rather to consider the faith of Noah and Noah’s virtuous obedience to God which is what he says the story is mostly about. He admits the facts of the story- what literally happened – remain a secret of God. Chrysostom then argues that since we know the loving nature of our God we simply have to trust Him in His revelation. The story, St. John concludes, teaches us to persevere in obeying God no matter what conditions we have to live under.
The story teaches us that doing God’s will and even God’s salvation might require patience and suffering on our part as it did Noah. That is something we modern people find hard to accept. We want instant success, not a long protracted struggle. Yet as any farmer/gardener knows there are many potential threats and disasters from planting until harvest, and one has to meet them all if one has any hope of having a harvest. Even if one does everything just right, the harvest might be ruined by events beyond one’s control. For Christians the real harvest though does not occur in this world, but in the world to come. The suffering and problems here, bad as they are, are nothing compared to the harvest which awaits the faithful in God’s kingdom.
Tonight we commemorate the Mystical Supper – the last meal Christ ate with His disciples before His death and Resurrection. We call it the Mystical Supper because Christ gave the bread and wine of the Passover Meal new meaning and importance by declaring we are to eat this meal in memory of Him, and by saying the bread and wine have mystically become His Body and His Blood. We tonight enter into that story as the other disciples of Christ – we too are invited to the Mystical Supper, to the table with the other disciples, invited by our Lord Jesus Christ. We are not simply remembering a 2000 year old historical event, nor are we merely re-enacting it. Rather we are “remembering” the event. How can we “remember” something we weren’t there to witness? Because the remembering of the Liturgy places us in the event. We are receiving this Body and Blood of Christ with the first apostles, not in the upper room, but in the Kingdom of Heaven. We join the Communion of the Apostles whose icon is ever before in this church. We are receiving the Body and Blood of the risen Lord – we already know the resurrection, we are not pretending to go back to a time before the resurrection. Time is not of the essence in the mystical celebration of an historical event. We enter into the Gospel story fully knowing the end of the story. We know what the disciples did not know, but we don’t go back in time to a date in which we too don’t know that is to happen. The Gospel writers wrote the story years after the Resurrection and the Gospel narrative assumes we have a knowledge of the Resurrection. The Gospel writers, the Gospel we read, and we ourselves all see the story of the Mystical Supper from the vantage point of Knowing Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. The Gospel narrative didn’t end with the crucifixion of Christ, nor was it written before the Resurrection was known and proclaimed. So we see the story, hear the story and participate in the Last supper as believers in the Resurrection. The only Christ we know is the Risen CLord. We know what even the chosen 12 Disciples did not know on the night that Jesus was given up, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world. Our faith in Jesus Christ risen from the dead brings us to the same table as the original 12 chosen disciples. Our faith brings us into the Gospel story and places us in the presence of all of these who have believed. Our communion is not only with Christ, but also with His chosen 12, with Mary His mother, and with all the martyrs and saints who have believed throughout history.
We are not re-enacting the events of 2000 years ago. We are not trying to walk along and experience what Christ experienced, or what the disciples experienced.
Christ for us is always the RISEN LORD. We are not searching for the historical Jesus, for we believe in the RISEN Lord. The Gospel lessons were written by those who already knew and believed in Christ risen from the dead.
We view all of the events of Christ’s life from the vantage point of the resurrection, of God’s victory over sin, death, Satan and all evil.
We don’t pretend that the suffering of Christ is unbearable. For we know the Gospel Story of Christ through our faith in Who He IS, not through who what the disciples didn’t understand of failed to believe. Though it is true that our reaction to the Risen Christ may be the same incredulity and misunderstanding that the disciples themselves demonstrated.
We now stand with all those who believe in the resurrection of Christ. We stand tonight with those who know who Jesus is – the Christ, the Son of God, risen from the dead. The details in the 4 Gospel accounts do differ at points, but the faith of the Evangelists in Jesus Christ as Lord, risen from the dead, is one and the same in all 4 Gospels. Our experience is of this same Jesus Christ. The details of what happened are not quite as important as the truth about who Jesus is, and who we all receive into our hearts and lives when we believe in Him, when we hear proclaimed the Gospel, and when we receive Him in the Holy Eucharist.