Thursday, August 14, 2003


In Awe of Creation

As one who ponders the laws, forms, and vitality of creation, I can be filled with great awe at the natural world. Unfortunately, this awe cannot easily find expression in the current scientific climate given our conventions of detachment. Schrodinger once declared the deficiency of the scientific picture with regard to that which "is really near to our heart":

"I'm very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight, knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously."

Science, the abstract entity, the ever expanding open source library of observation and theory, may provide "a lot of factual information." But the inspiration for the individual contributors to that library can be deeply spiritual, rooted in the awe of creation, the handiwork of a magnificent Creator. Isaac Newton wrote more words about theology than science. One of his most frequently quoted statements is: "This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being."

M.I.T. professor Alan Lightman wrote a book called Origins: the Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists, where he states:

"References to God or divine purpose continued in the scientific literature until the middle to late 1800s. It seems likely that the studied lack of religious references after this time resulted more from a change in social and professional convention among scientists rather than from any change in underlying thought. Indeed, contrary to popular myth, scientists appear to have the same range of attitudes about religious matters as does the general public."

I think many early modern scientists saw their investigations as a fleshing out of the awe and wonder that they already believed the Christian God had in store for them. Although perhaps no major religion has embraced science, individual scientists certainly have, declaring in the words of Carl Sagan, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed."

As scientific convention has distanced itself from the spiritual, a vacuum has emerged in which Sagan believed a new religion would emerge: "A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge."

This may yet be the case. But for some, the awe they experience brings them back to their faith. It is not a grafting of the spiritual onto the rational, but a return to the spirit through a door unsuspected. The world of the seen hints at the world of the unseen, as if through a murky window. But as the window clears, we may yet encounter the unseen face to face. And without fear.

The childlike awe at the natural world is a like a signpost, telling us we're heading in the right direction. It has been said that scientists will one day crest the mountain of human knowledge only to find a group of theologians at the top wondering what took them so long to get there. If the theologians are there, I'd like to meet them. I think it's more likely that both are cresting the same mountain, guided by desire. And it may turn out to be much more than a mountain.

I'm more familiar with the Christian scientists out there, but I am sure one can find expressions of this awe in a variety of faiths. I think that some of the early workers in quantum mechanics were of a Hindu spirituality and this doubtless entered some of their writings.

My particular experience of the awe originally found expression in the words of Paul Davies, a mathematical physicist whose first book I read was Superforce when I was a sophomore in high school:

"I was drawn to the idea of God as a sort of 'timeless ground of being' on which the cosmic order is built. Since science proceeds from the assumption that nature unfailingly obeys rational mathematical laws, these laws must be rooted in something."

The quote is deliciously open-ended. The open source search for the "root of being" continues. As Francis Bacon (1561-1626), popularizer of the scientific method said, in what has been called his "Two Books" manifesto,

"Let no one think or maintain that a person can search too far or be too well studied in either the book of God's word or the book of God's works."

Wednesday, August 13, 2003


The Army needs to win

Today I wrote my first proposal to the Army. So here's my tongue in cheek accounting of it...

I think they are interested in creative new ways to use a vague new field called "biotechnology" to do their job. So I had to answer questions like the following:

Q: What is the significance of your work to the Army's needs?

A: Well, the Army needs to win. And to win, they need to kill people and break things. And so, the Army needs to control things it does not currently understand; for example, life. As a first step toward controlling life, they need to simulate it on a computer. And so, the Army needs to start with simulating small things that make up life, like little molecules. It is important that the Army simulate little molecules using our methods. They simply must. And they need to give us money to do it. The fate of the free world depends upon it.

Okay, okay. There's kind of a conceptual leap involved going from "the Army needs to win" to "the Army must give us money", but I'll assure the Army it depends on sound reasoning that they do not yet understand, but will in time. After we get the money, of course.

Monday, August 11, 2003


Augustine: the heart of the church's antisexual tradition

Continuing the discussion of sex and faith...

It's unfortunate the some Christians feel that their sexuality is nature's strongest competitor for their loyalty to Christ: `You cannot love both God and sex.' While they may not make it part of their creed, their feelings tell them that sexuality is not a sweet gift of creation but a bitter fruit of the fall. They are supported in this by a long antisexual tradition within Christianity.

AugustineAugustine, to whom we otherwise owe more than most of us even imagine, interpreted the Christians' calling to struggle against evil as a calling to struggle against their sexuality. Intense desires for sexual fulfillment and intense pleasure from sexual action were for him marks of a fallen man.

Augustine, the leading theologian of the fourth century, embraced the faith on April 25, A.D. 387 along with his "illegitimate" son, leaving behind his wife and his second mistress. He had already split up from his first concubine, the mother of his son, after 17 years of living together. He turned his home in Hippo--an ancient city on the Medditerannian coast in present day Tunisia--into a monastery. As Bishop of Hippo, he proceeded to make many literary contributions to Christianity.

Unfortunately, his sexual views were sadly affected by the monastic temperament of the times, perhaps an over-compensation for the sexuality of his liberal youth. It was Augustine who, according to many, "set the final seal on the anti-sexual bias of the Church" (Nigel Davies, The Rampant God, 1984: p. 180).

Augustine could not imagine an innocent person in Paradise turned on sexually: a sinless Adam could never have been sexually aroused by a pure Eve; Adam and Eve could not have walked with God in the day and made spontaneous love at night. (Augustine grudgingly admitted that Adam and Eve may have had sex in the Garden before their Fall, but theorized that it was a very cold dutiful mechanical act without passion. After daring to suggest that even if they did have sex in the Garden, he assures his readers that they certainly would not have enjoyed it.)

According to Augustine, if we make love now it is only because we have not brought our bodies under the rule of Christ. The less one is driven toward sex and the less pleasure he receives from sexual expression, the more sure he can be of his own sanctification. The Lord, in his grace, tolerates our inconsistency; but we must know that he calls us to better, sexless things.

This is how Augustine felt about sexuality. Some Christians still carry Augustine's feelings in their hearts; they can only hope that God tolerates their sexuality until their liberation from it in heaven.

Our sexuality is the turbulent fountain of so much tension that it has struck many Christians as the clearest example of creation's distortion by sin. Augustine said: "For my soul's freedom I resolved not to desire, nor to seek, nor to marry a wife" (perhaps inspired by Paul's commands in 1 Corinthians 7:25-28). The spontaneous impulses of our sexuality seem to counter the Christian call to self-control. "Away with the thought that there should have been any unregulated excitement [in Paradise]..." (Augustine c. duas epist, Pelag. I 34, 17). Ecstatic experience in sex scarcely harmonizes with the mandate to subdue the earth or the Christians' summons to present his body as a reasonable service to God. Describing the Christians' reservations regarding sexuality, L.B. Smedes says,

It is altogether too much like apoplexy, madness, and wild torrents of dark passion. Would it not then be prudent for the Christian to play it safe and at least treat sexuality, as we experience it on this side of Eden, as sinful lust?

I don't think so.

There's omething you should know about Augustine's background. Before becoming a Christian, Augustine had studied the works of Plotinus, and for eleven years was a member of the Manichaean sect, whose founder taught that Adam and Eve resulted from the Devil's children having sex, and procreation was just another evil part of the Prince of Darkness' creation. Although he eventually disengaged himself intellectually, Augustine never entirely disengaged himself emotionally. And it spills over in his writings.

Satan's tried to steal sex from us. It's about time we steal it back.

Saturday, August 09, 2003


A clear endorsement of sexual passion, from our friend, the Scriptures.

Let your fountain, the wife of your youth,

be blessed, rejoice in her,

a lovely doe, a graceful hind,

let her be your companion;

you will at all times be bathed in her love,

and her love will continually wrap around you.

Wherever you turn, she will guide you;

When you lie in bed, she will watch over you,

and when you wake, she will talk with you.

Proverbs 5:18-19 (New English Version)

Friday, August 08, 2003


Smedes on Sex and Faith

The average Christian has an especially hard time integrating his sexuality with his faith. He is dedicated to a Lord whose earthly life was celibate and whose messengers were not interested in reporting his attitudes toward sex. He is summoned to follow the Lord into purity and holiness, neither of which is usually allowed to include an enthusiastic summons to sexual fulfillment. He is informed and guided by Scripture, whose word on sexuality is not always specific and clear. ...

The writers of the Bible did not make sexuality a major theme. They had more urgent matters on their minds: they were responding to the great acts of God for human salvation. They were not divinely inspired to theorize about sex. But it was just because they were bringing the good news for the whole person that they could not help saying something about human sexuality. ...

We can let the gospel open up a perspective for us on human life as a whole. The message of Christ gives us a point of view, a vista from which to understand and evaluate our total experience as human beings. It informs our attitudes, shapes our values, and points to our goals. It also speaks to us about our origins as body-persons, and about our inevitable tendency to distort life. And it offers the possibility of liberation from the powers of distortion and inhumanity.

In short, what we look for first is not a theory of sexuality nor a set of rules for sexual behavior; we look for an understanding of what we are, what we tend to make of ourselves, and what we can be through grace. And then we can fit our sexuality and our sexual behavior into the biblical pattern and the biblical perspective. What we want, then, is not sexual information first of all, but a view and an attitude toward out sexual lives that is informed by the gospel as a whole.

Lewis B. SmedesLewis B. Smedes was an author, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, and clergyman in the Reformed Church of America.

Sunday, August 03, 2003


The End of History?

In what follows, I reproduce a review of the next big book I intend to read some day (which could be any time in the next decade). This book was suggested by Pastor Ralph of the Pasadena Foursquare Church over a breakfast conversation. Conversations can sometimes ramble on in unexpected directions, and this one took us into history, beginning 13,000 years ago. That was the starting epoch in UCLA Prof. Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond explains how societies that had a head start in food production advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and then developed writing, technology, government, and organized religion—as well as nasty germs and potent weapons of war—and adventured on sea and land to conquer and decimate less advanced cultures. I see the book as a major advance in history, chronicling the way that the modern world came to be. It even inspired me to start my own timeline of human history in order to make sense of history's broadest patterns. The time since the last major collision between the Old and New World (roughly AD 1500) is the story of this next historical undertaking.

Jacques BarzunFrom Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (1500 to the
By Jacques Barzun. HarperCollins. 877 pp. $36.

Reviewed by John J. Reilly

From Dawn to Decadence is one of those wonderful books that cannot be
categorized. Some reviewers have compared it to The Education of Henry Adams,
the great intellectual auto­ biography that seemed to sum up the last fin–de–siècle.
The comparison does no injustice to either work. Jacques Barzun was born in
1907, and so has lived through a not insignificant slice of the period he covers,
but even he did not know Descartes personally. And yet in some ways From
Dawn to Decadence
reads less like a history than it does like a personal
memoir of the last half–millennium, with people and topics selected chiefly
because the author is interested in them. The effect is delightful, though sometimes
a little disorienting. Perhaps the one thing you can say for sure about From
Dawn to Decadence
is that it provides the most cheerful explanation you
are ever likely to get for why Western culture is ending.

Jacques Barzun really needs no introduction. Anyone interested in William James,
the great Romantic composers, the role of race in historical writing, or a dozen
other subjects has already encountered him somewhere. (A book he coauthored
with Henry Graff, The Modern Researcher, sticks in my mind after twenty–five
years as a philosophy of historiography disguised as a reference guide.) In
From Dawn to Decadence, he manages to touch on just about all his lifelong
interests, and without turning the book into a mere anthology.

The format is loosely chronological, with the great era of the post–medieval,
“modern” West divided into several lesser ages. The whole text is broken up
into digestible chunks of commentary and biography. We get assessments, sometimes
quite idiosyncratic ones, of almost all the great names of the modern era, but
many of the biographies are of persons the author deems worthy–but–obscure.
Some of these subjects really are virtually forgotten, such as the ingenious
eighteenth–century polymath, Dr. Georg Lichtenberg. Others are just a bit neglected,
such as the senior Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Barzun manages to praise this physician
and essayist while barely mentioning his jurist son.) A particularly entertaining
feature of the book is the brief, apt quotations set into the margins. Had it
not been for From Dawn to Decadence, I would never have known that Thursday
was bear–baiting day at the court of Elizabeth I.

From Dawn to Decadence has only a minimal amount of political and military
narrative, which is something of a drawback since the author routinely makes
unexplained allusions to people and events that may no longer be common knowledge.
(Do undergraduates today know what Stanley said to Livingston? I’m afraid to
ask.) And then there are the fact–checking lapses inevitable in a work of this
scope. These will allow readers to entertain themselves by looking for mistakes.
More than one reviewer has noted that modern calculus does not use Newton’s
notation, as Barzun says, but that of Leibniz. However, this review may be the
only place you will read that those long–range shells the Germans fired at Paris
(and Barzun) during the First World War did not come from Big Berthas, but from
Krupp’s Pariskanone.

Parlor games aside, the author corrects errors that are far more important
than the ones he makes. He points out, for instance, that, no, M. Jourdain did
not speak prose, and that Molière knew this as well as anyone. It is anachronistic,
he reminds us, to suppose that Galileo was tried because the Inquisition believed
the Copernican model threatened man’s place in the universe. Rousseau’s works
cannot be made to say, he observes with a note of exasperation, that Rousseau
was a revolutionary who wished mankind to return to a state of nature. Intellectual
superstitions of this sort are probably immortal, but it is a good idea to try
to correct them at least once every five hundred years.

While a book as genial as this one can hardly be accused of promoting anything
as crudely Germanic as a theory of history, it does present a sketch of the
last half–millennium. According to Barzun, the West has been working out a cultural
impulse that it received in the Renaissance, an impulse that had become exhausted
by the end of the twentieth century. This impulse was not an ideology or an
agenda but an expandable list of desires, particular forms of which can be detected
throughout all the cultural and political controversies of the great era. The
names of these desires are helpfully capitalized wherever they are mentioned,
so that Emancipation is graphically shown to play a role in every major controversy
from the Reformation to the women’s suffrage movement. Another example is Primitivism,
the perennial impulse to return to the original text, to the early constitution,
to the uncluttered state of the beginning. Other trends of the modern era have
been informed by the desires for Abstraction, Reductivism, and Self–consciousness.
Ideas like these can hardly be said to have been the motor of Western history,
but looking for their various incarnations over the centuries does make it much
easier to view the era as a whole.

Barzun laconically informs us that late medieval Europe was a “decadent” society.
I myself had thought that Richard Gilman had permanently retired that word with
his study Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet, but Barzun may persuade
readers that “decadence” is neither a moral category nor a bit of implicit vitalism.
Rather, Barzun says, the term “decadent” may properly be used of any social
situation that is blocked, where people entertain goals for which they will
not tolerate the means. Decadent societies tend to become labyrinthine in
both their cultures and their styles of government, as people create small accommodations
within a larger unsatisfactory context. Decadent periods can be sweet, as Talleyrand
remarked of pre–Revolutionary France, but partly because they are obviously

Decadence may end in the explosion of a revolution, by which Barzun means the
violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea. Revolutions are
great simplifiers that pave over the labyrinths and open up possibilities that
were unimaginable just a few years previously. There have been four of these
revolutions during the modern era, each more or less defining an age. There
was the religious revolution of the Reformation, which first stated themes that
would recur through the rest of the era. There was the monarch’s revolution
of the seventeenth century, in which the aristocracy was tamed and large, centralized
states began to appear. The monarchs, of course, got their comeuppance in the
liberal revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Most recently, every
throne, power, and dominion was shaken by the social revolution at the beginning
of the twentieth.

Barzun seems to believe that the twentieth century was so traumatized by the
First World War that it was never able to fully exploit the positive possibilities
in what he calls the “Cubist Decade” that preceded the war’s outbreak. Rather,
the Age of Modernism (not to be confused with the modern era) largely confined
itself to analysis and destruction. Thanks to the First World War, the more
distant past became unusable: the sense of living in a completely new age left
the past with nothing to say. No restraints remained on the expression of the
desires that had characterized the whole modern era. The result was that, by
century’s end, the chief remaining impulses in Western culture had developed
to a theoretical maximum. So ends an age.

This conclusion would be depressing, were it not so reminiscent of similar
conclusions in earlier eras. Barzun notes that at the end of the fifteenth century,
some people held that the sixth millennium of the world was about to end—and
history along with it. As is often the case with this kind of sentiment, the
people who shared it were on to something, if the end of history is taken to
mean the end of history as they knew it. Barzun ends the book on a note of hopeful
speculation. He looks back from a more distant time on our immediate future,
which he supposes will be an age when history will wholly disappear from even
the minds of the educated. Indeed, so completely will the modern age be forgotten
that its rediscovery will have an impact quite as revolutionary as the impact
that classical culture had on the late medieval world. The result, Barzun hopes,
will be another renaissance, when the young and talented will again exclaim
what joy it is to be alive.

John J. Reilly is the author of Apocalypse & Future: Notes on the Cultural
History of the 21st Century

(c) 2000 First Things
107 (November 2000): 43-44.