Thursday, March 31, 2011

Do You Cheat On Your Taxes?

By Eric Von Salzen

Income taxes are due on April 18th this year, so this is a timely question.

According to a survey by DDB Worldwide Communications Group , 15% of Americans admitted cheating on their returns. Moreover, the tax cheats were more likely than non-cheaters to cheat in other ways: to keep the wrong change given by a cashier, to solicit a phony job reference, to lie to obtain a government benefit, even to steal money from a child.

And yet, these cheaters disproportionately believe that they are “overall better people”, who are “special and deserve to be treated that way”. So perhaps I asked the wrong question.

Perhaps I should have asked: “Are you special?”

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spontaneous Generation

By Eric Von Salzen

I’ve just read “The Grand Design”, the new book by the great mathematician Stephen Hawking (and the less-famous physicist Leonard Mlodinow). When the book was announced a few months ago, I wrote on this site:

I’m looking forward to reading Stephen Hawking’s new book, in which he argues that we do not need to believe in God to explain the existence of the universe. Instead, we are to believe in “M-theory”, which involves 11 space-time dimensions, “vibrating strings, ... point particles, two-dimensional membranes, three-dimensional blobs and other objects that are more difficult to picture and occupy even more dimensions of space.” Boy, that’s a relief! Just good old common sense, and none of that religious mumbo-jumbo!

I repeat those words now, not because I’m proud of my rhetoric (although I am), but to alert you to my bias.

To a substantial extent, the claim that Hawking's book proves that there’s no need to assume a role for God in creation is publisher’s hype. It's a good way to generate buzz, but that's not really what the book is primarily about. The book is primarily a summary, for the intelligent lay reader, of current scientific thinking about the origin and nature of the universe in light of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, a sort of “Cosmology for Dummies.”

“Dummies” is a relative term, of course. Although Hawking (I’m going to refer to the author as Hawking, and not Hawking and Mlodinow because Hawking’s the famous name; sorry Leonard) – although Hawking makes these subjects as accessible to the intelligent lay reader as possible, it's pretty deep stuff. At some point along the way, even if you are much smarter than I am (you probably are), you’re likely to find you just can't grasp what Hawking is saying. At best, you'll be able to figure out what the subject matter under discussion is, but not the substance of the discussion. It's like someone who just finished a second year college German class eavesdropping on a discussion between Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche: you can't understand what they're saying, but you might be able to figure out the topic. If you’re as interested in the science that Hawking discusses as I am, you should enjoy this book.

But for purposes of this blog, what is of interest in this book is what Hawking claims regarding religion. These claims are found primarily in the second chapter, which discusses the origins of religious belief, and then later toward the end of the book, where Hawking discusses design in creation.

In Chapter 2, Hawking portrays religion as the invention of primitive peoples who were ignorant of science, but wanted to understand how and why the physical world worked the way it did. In their ignorance they invented gods “to lord it over every aspect of human life.” Once science came along to explain the mysteries of the physical world, there was no further need for religion. As a wise man (not Hawking) said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child”, etc. Yet, religion stubbornly hangs on like some cultural vermiform appendix; most humans haven’t yet “put away childish things”.

There are two things wrong with Hawking’s argument. First, there’s no evidence that religion was invented primarily to explain the physical world. Second, even if that were the original purpose of religion, that doesn’t mean that religion today has no broader and deeper purposes that science has not rendered obsolete.

I’ll take Hawking’s word on matters of math or physics, because he’s clearly an expert, but on the origin of religion, Hawking can claim no special expertise. He's obviously a very smart man, but he offers no evidence that he’s studied comparative religion, cultural anthropology, paleontology, or any of the other disciplines that would be implicated in a serious investigation of the origin of religion. To support his proposition that religion arose to explain the physical world, Hawking cites creation myths from Viking and Amerindian cultures, the former around 1,000-years old, the latter about 6,600 years older than that. Yet, cave paintings, burial practices, devotional objects, etc., found by archeologists suggest that human beings have had some sense of the divine for several tens of thousands of years. The origins of religion are lost in the mists of time.

It’s undoubtedly true that some primitive religions we know about used stories about gods to explain aspects of the physical world, but that doesn't mean that this was the primary purpose for which religion was “invented”. It could just as well be the case that ancient peoples, having become conscious of the divine, then attributed to divinity responsibility for aspects of the physical world. Let’s take a modern-day example. Today some Christians believe in the concept of "intelligent design", the notion that God is responsible for characteristics of plants and animals, such as the cilium of the eye, that (supposedly) cannot be adequately explained by contemporary science, i.e., by evolution. But the adherents to intelligent design did not invent God to explain the development of the eye. It works the other way around: their belief in God came first, and that belief led them to invent the idea of intelligent design. There is no reason to suppose that ancient or primitive peoples could not have developed their ideas about religion in the same way. Thus, the ancient Klamath Indians might not have invented gods to explain the existence of Crater Lake, as Hawking assumes; they might have regarded the lake as confirmation of the gods in whom they already believed for other reasons.

The mythologies that I know a little about, ancient Greek, the Norse, the Irish, do include stories that use gods or other supernatural characters to explain aspects of the physical universe, but they do a great deal more. When Poseidon wrecks the ships on which Odysseus seeks to return home from Troy, the story is not just an explanation for storms at sea. That’s why we still read the Odyssey.

This is certainly true of the Old Testament. The ancient Hebrew stories do explain various aspects of the physical world, but that isn’t their primary purpose. The principal lesson of Genesis 1 is not about the mechanics of creation (pace my creationist friends), but about the relationship between God and the creation. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah may have its origins in some ancient volcanic eruption, but that’s not why the story is read today.

Moreover, whatever may have been the motivation for the “invention” of early religions, today modern religions have very little to do with explaining the mysteries of the physical world that science now promises to reveal. If Hawking thinks that many modern Christians would abandon their religion if they understood what a quark is, he lives in a different world than I do. Some Christians, it is true, have difficulty accepting the fact that science tells us that some Bible stories are not literally true: that the universe was not created in seven days, but in less than a microsecond, that the sun only seemed to stop in the sky while the Lord gave the Israelites victory over the Amorites, and so on. But this doesn’t prove that these Christians believe in God in order to explain the physical world. On the contrary, their belief in God takes precedence over explanations of the physical world that these believers feel are inconsistent with their faith. I’m not a Biblical literalist myself, and I personally hope that the day will come that creationists and other literalists, or their children, will finally come to accept that the teachings of science about evolution, the Big Bang, and other issues are fully reconcilable with Christian faith. When they do, that will not keep them away from church on Sundays.

Hawking returns to religion toward the end of the book, where he addresses scientific findings that some people think support the existence of a creator God. The fundamental laws of physics seem to be “fine-tuned” to create a universe that supports the existence of human beings. For example, human and all other life that we know about depends on the element carbon. Carbon is created in the heart of dying stars and is dispersed into space when the star explodes, whence it can become a constituent of a life-supporting planet. If the laws of nuclear physics were only slightly different, little or no carbon (or oxygen, for that matter) would be created in stars, and life as we know it would be impossible. Every other fundamental force in nature within this universe falls in a narrow range that is suitable for creating an environment in which life is possible.

At one time scientists thought that these fundamental laws of nature represented the only way that things could be. The science that Hawking describes however, shows that these fundamental laws came into existence in the earliest moments of the Big Bang that created our universe, and it was entirely possible that different physical laws, with different values, could have come into being in that process. Indeed, the odds seem to be overwhelmingly against the existence of a universe compatible with human life.

Thus, science poses a question – why is our universe designed to be friendly to us? – for which religion may provide the answer: God. Indeed, some astronomers and cosmologists embrace a belief in God, at least a kind of Deism, for this reason.

Hawking acknowledges this challenge to the pretensions of science to answer every question without reference to God. His response is that equations that underlie the theory of the universe called M-theory show that a huge number of universes are possible. Indeed, the theory implies that in some sense all these alternate universes exist. The number of universes predicted by M Theory is not, technically, infinite, but it is huge: 10 to the 500th power, or a one followed by 500 zeros. You'll excuse me, I hope, if I don't set it out here. Out of that huge number of universes, virtually any set of physical laws must exist in one of them, so our life-friendly universe could come about without any divine intervention. Human life, of course, could only have arisen in this one particular universe.

The other creation problem, which exists for any universe that is supposed to have a beginning, is how the beginning began. If our universe (or all the 10 to the 500th power universes) began in a Big Bang, where did the stuff that went bang come from? Religions can answer that question, although perhaps not every religion’s answer is satisfactory to everyone. The oft-told story (including told by Hawking himself) is that in some religion the world was thought to rest on the back of a giant turtle; and what did the turtle stand on? Another turtle, and that one on yet another: It’s turtles all the way down. In Christian and Jewish scripture, the answer to the ex nihilo problem is that in the beginning God created the universe from nothing. Genesis explains how he did it: “God said let there be light, and there was light", etc. It is nonsense to ask what happened before the beginning.

What is the Big Bang theory’s answer to this problem? If we run the movie of the expanding universe backward, eventually all the matter and all the energy is compressed into an infinitely small space. And then what? Hawking’s answer is that entire universe (and all 10 to the 500th power universes?) simply created itself from nothing. This is possible, he says, because, in a sense, a universe is nothing. The total energy of the universe it seems is zero, because gravity represents negative energy that exactly balances out the positive energy of all the matter in the universe; the net energy is zero. Thus:

Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing . . . . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Hawking seems to be quite comfortable with his answers to the question how our universe, so apparently fine-tuned for life like ours, came into being. He may, for all I know, be right. I don't begin to understand the math, and he's one of the smartest (if not the smartest) mathematician in the world.

As it happens, at the same time I was reading “The Grand Design” I was reading another book, “Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer” by C. S. Lewis. We have a discussion group at our church that is reading “Letters to Malcolm” together. I found this passage in Lewis’s book:

[T]he sciences are always pushing further back the realm of mere “brute fact.” But no scientist, I suppose, believes that the process could ever reach completion. At the very least, there must always remain the utterly “brute” fact, the completely opaque datum, that a universe – or, rather, this universe, with its determinate character – exists . . . .

What would Lewis make of Hawking? Lewis thought no scientist could imagine claiming that he had reached a complete understanding of how it is that this universe exists. Jack, meet Steve. Steve, meet Jack.

So, as I say, Hawking’s math may all check out, but still, I’m troubled. Is it really more sensible to assume that a gazillion universes, all but one of which is unknown (and presumably unknowable) to us, created themselves from nothing, rather than to believe that God created this one universe in a way that made life possible? I think Occam's razor favors the second hypothesis, but maybe that's just me.

Let me make one thing clear. My own religious faith does not depend on the inability of science to explain where the universe came from or why its physical laws are the way they are. I’m perfectly happy to assume that someday science will answer all these questions (although I remain skeptical about Hawking’s claim that science has already done so). My faith is based on the resurrection of a Jewish carpenter almost 2,000 years ago and the promises he made to mankind.

So, read “The Grand Design” if you’re interested in the science. It’s short, only 181 pages, and easy reading. Or, if you’d like a greater challenge, read “Letters to Malcolm”. It’s even shorter (124 pages), but you’ll work harder at it, and get more from it, I believe.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Big Rock Candy Mountain

By Eric Von Salzen

I was interested to read the other day that doomsday for the human race may arrive in 2036. In that year, according to some Russian scientists, an asteroid called Apophis may strike the Earth, with the force of 100,000 atom bombs; dust and debris from the impact would darken skies world-wide and bring on a global winter. It could be the end for us all.

Other scientists claim that when Apophis gives us a near miss in 2029 we’ll know for sure whether the asteroid is on a collision course with Earth on its next pass seven years later, which will give us an opportunity to send rockets to nudge it into a safer orbit.

But if Apophis doesn’t get us, perhaps another asteroid will, like the one that (some say) killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. (“Apophis” is the Greek rendering of the name of the Egyptian god Apep the Uncreator, the god of darkness and chaos; any doomsday asteroid would be “Apophis”.) An asteroid we hadn’t spotted might pop up unexpectedly with no chance to divert it.

Or, if not an asteroid, then perhaps a supernova, a gigantic stellar explosion, will destroy us. If a star relatively close by (say less than 20 light years away) blows up, it could unleash a flood of gamma rays that would strip the Earth of its ozone layer, leaving us naked to deadly solar and cosmic radiation. Such an explosion is thought (by some) to be responsible for the Ordovician extinction 450 million years ago, in which 60 percent of marine invertebrates died (all living creatures in those days lived in the sea).

Or how about this. There’s a federal facility in the western United States that contains something capable of doing the same damage that Apophis could do. It’s not in Roswell, NM, and it’s not an alien space craft. The facility is Yellowstone National Park and what it contains is a super volcano. Yellowstone in fact is the caldera of a huge active volcano. Its last eruption, 640,000 years ago, was a thousand times the size of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, according to National Geographic. A pillar of ash from the Yellowstone eruption rose 100,000 feet into the air, “leaving a layer of debris across the West all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Pyroclastic flows -- dense, lethal fogs of ash, rocks, and gas, superheated to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit -- rolled across the landscape in towering gray clouds. The clouds filled entire valleys with hundreds of feet of material so hot and heavy that it welded itself like asphalt across the once verdant landscape.” This eruption may have plunged the entire planet into years of volcanic winter. And yet it was a mere volcanic belch compared to its predecessor 2.1 million years ago. As recently as 74,000 years ago, the human race was almost exterminated by the global winter caused by the eruption of a super volcano in Indonesia.

Even if Earth avoids all these routine disasters, some day our sun will run out of the hydrogen that provides the source of its energy (it’s already half way through its life span). When that happens, the sun will balloon into a “red giant”, which will swallow up the Earth. And if by then the human race has moved on to other planets, that will only delay the inevitable. The universe is expanding from the Big Bang that started it, and one of two things will happen. It may reverse itself and contract into a Big Crunch, or it may expand forever until its temperature reaches absolute zero and all energy and matter evaporates. In either event, we're toast (hot toast or cold toast, but defintely toast). It’s only a matter of time.

I could go on, but the point is that neither the human race, nor the planet on which we live, will last forever.

Does this matter? After all, each one of us is going to die someday, and that would be true even if the world and the human race lasted forever. Yet I think it does matter, because it tells us something about the nature of the world we live in, and our place in it. Not only are we, each of us, dust and destined to return to dust, but the same is true of our entire world.

Most Christians, I think, believe that this world will someday come to an end and be replaced by a better one. Some Christians focus a lot on the notion of the End Times. Some even try to put a date on doomsday using biblical prophecies. In reading up on Apophis, I discovered a YouTube video that associated this asteroid with various passages in the Old and New Testaments; the video asserted that any effort to change the orbit of Apophis was bound to fail, because it was prophesied that the asteroid would, indeed, strike the earth.

That isn't my understanding of what biblical prophecy is all about. The notion that what has been prophesied must come to pass seems inconsistent with the sovereignty of God over the universe. The prophet Jonah prophesied the destruction of Nineveh, but when the Ninevites changed their sinful ways, God spared the city, the people, and the animals, too.

And isn’t it just a bit arrogant to claim that human beings can figure out the date of doomsday from reading scripture? Jesus said, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”. And he went on to say, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” The whole point seems to be that we should know that this world will pass away, but we aren't supposed to know when.

I think it’s a mistake to focus excessively on the coming of the End Times. But it’s also a mistake to ignore the fact that the world will end some day, and could end at any moment. My impression is that most mainline Christians don’t really keep the transitory nature of the world in mind. Although they may recite in church that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”, they forget about it as soon as the service is over.

This isn’t surprising. When you’re traveling first class, you’re not as anxious for the voyage to end as are those folks down in steerage. Christianity began among people whose lives were pretty rotten. When you told them that the world they knew would pass away, they took it as a promise, not as a threat. We comfortable, middle-class, American Christians (most of us, anyway) aren't in that big of a hurry for our world to pass away. I know that if it were up to me a couple of decades from now, I’d do everything possible to prevent Apophis from wiping us all out.

But there are several reasons why we should remember that our world could end at any time, and will end sometime, and ultimately there’s nothing we can do about it. First, it's true, and it's always a good idea to remember the truth. Second, remembering that this world won't last forever may help us to keep a sense of perspective about the importance of our own little affairs. Third, we are promised that what comes after this world will be far better, and we have that to look forward to.

Here’s how I think about this. I went to YMCA summer camp when I was a kid, and from time to time we’d get to take trips away from camp to hike or canoe somewhere. We traveled in the back of a big open truck, twenty or so boys sitting on wooden benches (of course, they’d never allow anyone to travel this way today, but this was the 1950's). As we drove along we sang camp songs as loud as we could -- Green Grow The Rushes, Ho! Home, Home On The Range. Big Rock Candy Mountain. We called out to the pretty girls as we drove through the towns. We had a grand old time. For awhile I would enjoy the trip so much I thought I didn't want it to end. But that feeling didn’t last, because I knew that when the trip ended we’d be canoeing on Lake George or the Connecticut River, or hiking on Mount Monadnock, or whatever. And that was going to be even better than the trip.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Father Cutié’s Dilemma

By Eric Von Salzen

Shortly before we moved out of south Florida a year and a half ago, a big ecclesiastical scandal broke in the local press. A popular Roman Catholic priest, Father Albert Cutié, was caught by paparazzi necking on the beach with a young woman.

The son of exiles from Castro’s Cuba, Father Cutié was a well-known figure in the Spanish-speaking community, not only in south Florida, but throughout Latin America, as the host of religious-themed radio and TV programs; he was popular enough to have earned the nickname “Father Oprah”. His celebrity made his transgression a public event (his name didn’t help; although pronounced KOO-tea-eh, it was hard to resist calling him “Father Cutie”).

In short order, the Bishop of Miami suspended Cutié from his priestly and other duties and stopped his salary and benefits. The Episcopal Bishop of Southeast Florida, Leo Frade (himself a native of Cuba), extended an invitation to Cutié to continue his priestly vocation in the Episcopal Church, and Cutié accepted. He was received as an Episcopal priest and has been put in charge of a small parish in Miami. Father Cutié married the woman in the beach photos, and they have recently had a child. I have seen reports that he is soon to have his own TV show again, this time on Fox.

Father Cutié has now written a book about his experiences: Dilemma: A Priest’s Struggle With Faith and Love. It is well worth reading for its depiction of one individual priest’s experiences in the modern Roman Catholic Church.

When I first read the news accounts about Father Cutié being caught with a woman, and then about the speculation that he might join the Episcopal Church, my reaction was that it would have been better if Father Cutié had changed churches on his own initiative, instead of being forced to do so after he was caught in a compromising position. His book helped me see this part of Father Cutié’s dilemma from his own perspective. By the time he was caught by the paparazzi, Father Cutié was already deeply concerned about flaws in what he calls the “ideology” of the Roman Catholic Church, and he had been exploring the Episcopal Church as an institution that might be better suited to his views on religious matters as they had evolved since his ordination. But he found it very hard to make the decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church, in which he had grown up, and to which he had devoted his entire adult life. I found this part of his story quite convincing.

For me, the best parts of this book are Father’s Cutié’s stories about his experiences of the Roman Catholic Church from the inside, and his growing discomfort with certain aspects of the Church. Never having been a Roman Catholic myself – and certainly never having been a Roman Catholic priest – I can’t attest to whether what happened to Father Cutié was typical or aberrational, but as one man’s story it is compelling reading. He describes living in a world in which priests are isolated from their supposed spiritual leaders, and from each other; a world in which violations of the vow of celibacy are commonplace, but are tolerated so long as outsiders remain ignorant of them; in which those who run the organization care about their own power more than anything spiritual. This part of his story would make a good novel (I’m thinking more of a Marquand or Maugham novel than of Sinclair Lewis).

The last third of the book goes over these same issues, but no longer as part of a biography. Rather, we are given Father Cutié’s critique of the Roman Catholic Church today. The chapter names are enough to give you the flavor of his thoughts: “The Myth of Celibacy”, “Disposable Priests”, “The Church that Time Forgot”. To me, this part of the book was not as interesting as the biographical part, I guess because I don’t really care much about what’s wrong with a church to which I do not belong. The people that ought to read these things are the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but somehow I doubt that many of them will find Father Cutié a credible critic.

However, any Anglican that yearns for more centralized control in our Communion, who wants the Archbishop of Canterbury to become an “Anglican Pope”, who proposes to give enforcement powers to the “Instruments of Unity”, ought to read this book.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

. . . dreamt of in your philosophy

By Eric Von Salzen

I recently saw a story about Keith Parsons, a college professor who announced that he will no longer teach his course on the philosophy of religion, because he “cannot take . . . arguments [in favor of theism] seriously any more.”

Boy, was this a shock!

I had no idea that there was such a thing as “philosophy of religion”, or that you could actually get paid to teach it.

OK, OK, I’m being facetious. I have great respect for philosophy (and for religion, too, or at least for some religions). I took a whole course in philosophy my freshman year of college: Phil I, Plato, Aristotle, and Lucretius. What I most remember is how Plato wrote his Socratic dialogues so that Socrates always won the argument. I don’t mean just that we the reader ended up being persuaded. Even the guy Socrates was arguing with ended up agreeing with him. As you read along you came to a point where Socrates would say: Alcibiades (or whoever was Socrates’s victim in that particular dialogue), don’t you agree that . . . ? And as the reader I wanted to call out to poor Alcibiades, No, No, it’s a trick question, don’t agree with him! But feckless Alcibiades would agree, and then, sure enough, a few pages later, Socrates would show that if you accepted that assertion, you logically had to agree with Socrates’s conclusion. So old Alcibiades would sigh and agree that Socrates was right. Yes, Socrates, of course you’re right, how could it be otherwise?

This became a standing joke for a while in my crowd. Whenever some classmate would go overboard pontificating about something or other (and believe me, Harvard freshmen pontificated a lot – probably still do), someone would say, Yes, Socrates, of course you’re right, how could it be otherwise? It didn’t shut the pontificator up for long, but even a few minutes were a gift. So, I found that philosophy could be useful.

Later (much later), when I began to discover what my religion was all about, I started to read, or read about, philosophers who dealt with religious issues (or theologians who dealt with philosophical issues): Barth, Buber, William James, Kierkegaard, Leibniz, Tillich, etc. So, when I discovered from the article I just mentioned that there was an academic discipline called philosophy of religion, I thought it would involve in-depth consideration of the kinds of issues that these philosophers raised. “Fear and Loathing Revisited”? “I and Thou in the 21st Century”? Terrific!

But I found it was not so. According to the article about Professor Parson’s resignation, “much of philosophy of religion consists in working out the logical implications of arguments”, such as “the argument from evil”. And what is that “argument”? It’s the old chestnut about whether the existence of evil in the world proves that there cannot be a loving and omnipotent god.

Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t for a moment mean to minimize the agony of the person who cries from the heart, How can a loving God permit this terrible thing to happen, my child to die, my home to be destroyed by a hurricane, or whatever tragedy it is. There is evil in the world and it does challenge our faith.

But the “argument from evil” is not a cri de coeur by someone whose faith is being challenged, it’s an intellectual exercise by philosophers who like to play games with ideas. The article tells us:

In the 1970’s, several leading philosophers of religion broke the argument [from evil] down into a “logical” version (that any amount of evil is logically incompatible with such a god) which most philosophers consider defeated, and an “evidential” version (that certain amounts or types of evil we observe in our world are evidence against such a god) which remains a thorny problem.

This seems like a waste of intellect. Do these philosophers ask themselves whether perhaps God could have a different definition of, or perspective on, evil than they do? Have they considered Genesis 1-3 and tried to understand how a religious tradition reconciles the reality of evil in the world with the existence of a loving God? Have they even read and attempted to understand “Fear and Loathing”?

These are rhetorical questions. Perhaps the philosophers of religion have considered all these things and satisfied themselves that their own approach is right. But I doubt it. We are told in this article that 73% of philosophers are atheists, and I suspect that even those who are believers in their hearts know whose game they have to play.

I find this all depressing. It’s like learning that your professor of music is tone deaf. There may be certain things that you can learn from such a teacher, but it can only go so far,

I was thinking about this stuff the other day when I saw that Turner Classic Movies was showing Glory on Martin Luther King Day. I’ve seen this great movie two or three times before, and it is painful each time, but worth the pain. It tells the story of a regiment of Black soldiers, recruited by the Union in the Civil War. Near the end of the movie, the night before the great battle in which most of them will die, the soldiers gather around the camp fires and sing hymns, pray, and testify. Their faith in God gives them the ability to face the coming day.

I don’t have words that can evoke what I felt when I saw that scene. You can see most of the scene here.

This scene says more about the Christian religion than any philosophical exercise can do. Our faith is a peculiar mixture of heart and head, emotion and intellect. On the one hand, it has a mystical power that seems to plumb depths far more profound than mere intellect can reach. On the other hand, it is not a blind and foolish tooth-fairy faith; it depends on a confident knowledge of the fact that God so loved this real material world, and us its real material inhabitants, that he sent his only begotten son so that we could have eternal life. Isn’t that more important that any philosopher’s word games?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

For We Have Seen His Star In The East . . .

By Eric Von Salzen

Some call it Little Christmas, or Twelfth Night, or Epiphany: The end of the Christmas season. Traditionally, it’s the time when the Three Kings visited the Christ child

Everyone who reads this blog probably knows that scripture doesn’t call them kings, doesn’t even say there were three of them. Matthew’s Gospel, the only one that mentions them, says that “wise men [magi] from the east” came looking for the new-born King of the Jews. The notes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible say that the Magi were “a learned class in ancient Persia”, and that they might be called “astrologers”.

The wise men told King Herod that they had seen a “star” that signified the birth of a new king of the Jews. It’s uncertain what the “star” might have been; some have suggested that it might have been a comet, or a nova or supernova. I recently read that the “star” may have been the planet Jupiter, which passed close to the bright star Regulus three times between September of 3 BCE and May of 2 BCE, and for about three months during that period moved in a westerly (“retrograde”) direction – i.e., toward Judea from the perspective of observers in Persia. In June of 2 BCE Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest planets, overlapped, to appear as a single object. Astrologers might well have interpreted this unusual conjunction of stars as a sign of a portentous event.

If that’s the correct explanation, it solves one puzzle in Matthew’s gospel: Why nobody other than the wise men seems to have seen the “star”. When the Magi come to King Herod’s court with their story about the star, this was apparently the first time that anyone there had heard about the phenomenon. In fact, Herod asks the wise men when the star first appeared. If the “star” was a comet, everyone would have noticed it; even a nova or supernova would have been widely remarked, certainly by Herod’s chief priests and scribes (by the way, a 10-year old Canadian girl recently became the youngest person to discover a supernova ). But an unusual conjunction of Jupiter, Regulus, and Venus might have been noticed only by astrologers.

In most of the Christmas pageants I’ve seen (or been in, as I wrote here a couple of years ago), you have Mary and Joseph and the Babe; the three kings and the star; and shepherds, their sheep, and the angels who brought the tidings of great joy. But there’s no gospel that has both kings and shepherds. Matthew has the wise men, Luke has the shepherds. I assume that the new-born savior was visited by both wise men and shepherds (perhaps not at the same time – that could have made the stable awfully crowded), so why did Matthew choose to feature the wise men in his story of the savior’s birth, while Luke chose to go with the shepherds?

On the face of it, it would seem to make more sense for Matthew to tell about the shepherds, and for Luke to tell about the Persian astrologers. Matthew’s is regarded as the most “Jewish” of the gospels, whereas Luke, who had been the companion of Paul in bringing the message of Christ to non-Jewish foreigners, seems to be writing for Greek Christians. So you might expect Matthew to emphasize Christianity’s Jewish background in telling the story of the birth of Christ, and Luke to emphasize its universality.

But what does Luke give us? Shepherds. It would be hard to imagine a more obvious Jewish symbol. The ancestors of the Jewish people, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the twelve sons of Jacob for whom the twelve tribes of Israel were named, were all shepherds (so was Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, who was murdered by his brother Cain, the farmer). After the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery, they became farmers in the land that God had promised them, but they seem to have regarded that as a demotion from their ancestral occupation: Their great king, David, was a shepherd, and shepherds and sheep appear throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (“The Lord is my shepherd”, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel”, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”, “And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them”, etc.). Thus, if you wanted your gospel to emphasize Christianity’s Jewish background, it would be entirely appropriate to have the birth of the Messiah of the Jews announced to shepherds abiding in the fields, and to show them – representatives of the Israelite ideal – as the first people called to worship him.

So if shepherds are an obvious Jewish symbol, why didn’t Matthew, the gospeler to the Jews, have shepherds in his story? Why, instead, did he give us foreign astronomers?

The answer, I think, is that the wise men were just as much a symbol of an idealized Israel as Luke’s shepherds were, just a symbol of a different aspect of the ideal. Wise men coming from afar to adore the new-born King of the Jews is something that the Jewish scriptures had been expecting for centuries before the birth of Jesus.

The Psalmist said of the King of Israel:

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
Render him tribute,
May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
And all nations give him service.

[Psalm 72:10-11]

The wise men weren’t kings, but it would have been appropriate if they were.

But it wasn’t just the King of Israel that foreigners were to honor, but the Lord who the king represented:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
And turn to the Lord;
And all the families of the nations
Shall worship before him
[Psalm 22:27]

All the nations you have made shall come
And bow down before you, O Lord,
And shall glorify thy name
[Psalm 86:9]

Isaiah (and Micah, too) prophesied:

Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem
[Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2]

Over and over again in the Old Testament we see the same prophecy, that the gentiles will in time come to understand that the God of Israel is the God of all the world. Thus, Israel, by being God’s special people, would become the means of bringing the rest of the world to God.

Matthew’s story about eastern sages coming across the trackless wastes to do homage to the new born king is therefore just as “Jewish” a story as Luke’s story about shepherds. Luke’s shepherds remind us of the ancient, unspoiled, ideal Israel; Matthew’s story reminds us of the Hebrew tradition that the nations will come to Zion for instruction, that Israel will be a beacon to the entire world, “a light to enlighten the gentiles”.

For us today, or for me at least, the story of the wise men has more resonance than the story of the shepherds. Shepherds aren’t part of the world that I live in, but wise men are – that is, men and women who think that their learning enables them to understand how the world works. There are times when I find myself thinking that I’m one of them. So it’s good to be reminded that the wise men in Matthew’s story got it wrong. Their wisdom, their science, told them that what they were seeking was an earthly king, a king of the Jews like Herod; certainly that’s what Herod feared that the star foretold. When they got to Bethlehem, the child that they found would not grow up to be an earthly king. He would never issue an edict, or call forth an army, or impose a tax, or execute a rival, or do any of the things that kings did, and do. But when he died, three decades later, under a sign that mockingly called him “King of the Jews”, the Roman centurion in charge of his execution said, “Truly this man was God’s son.” That’s who the wise men had found, not the king they were looking for.

That’s quite an epiphany.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fear Not: For, Behold, . . .

I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Merry Christmas from the Godfather!