‘Science’ and ‘religion’ were originally names for good personal habits

The Territories of Science and Religion
’Science’ was originally a name for virtue, or a good habit–like making your bed or not doing that thing with your nose in public.

According to the thoughtful book The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, when thirteenth-century Doctor-of-the-Church Thomas Aquinas filtered newly-recovered Greek philosophy through a Christian net, — which was more or less what Aquinas did with his life — he came to understood ‘science’ as ‘working out conclusions from first principles.’ It was one of a trio of virtues: intellectus (grasping the first principles in the first place) scientia (deriving conclusions from them) and sapientia (coming to terms with the highest and ultimate cause, namely God.)

Good people possessed scientia. It was a fine habit. They were able to arrive at conclusions from principles and evidence, unswayed by prejudice, rage, timidity or Fox News (Vulpes Fabulae).

Religion –religio–was also a virtue. I am oversimplifying Peter Harrison’s careful historical inquiry here, but perhaps religio could be  ‘a disposition to worship the true God and live out a life of goodness.’ Insofar as this sense was true, it potentially transcended any one expression (Catholicism, say), by focussing on the timeless essence of the thing, namely the heart-to-God encounter that leads to a good life.

The opposite of religion could be ritual or idolatry–investing in spiritual scratchcards, as it were–or the equally empty pursuit of money, pleasure and stuff; or again the worship and pampering of Self; or even the slavish and fearful preoccupation with the Material Only.

Back in the early modern day, good people were defined by a kindly God-centred life and by applying logic to facts and arriving at conclusions. Scientia and Religio. Could perhaps do with a comeback.

 

Peter Harrison’s book is available on Kindle, and his first chapter, which arguably contains all the really good bits, is free to download.

The Territories of Science and Religion

by Peter Harrison [University Of Chicago Press]
Price: £22.50 EUR 26,97 EUR 27,36 EUR 23,95

Keep a pencil handy

Because eternity’s at your shoulder

lined paper

Today someone, armed just with a pencil and paper could make something that will last forever.

It might be a pencil sketch, or a melody, or a novel, or a theorem.

As long as there are people, that picture or song or story or insight will live on. Even if humans are out-evolved by (let us say) intelligent machines, they may be wise enough still to treasure these divine relics.

And our art may add to the furniture in an eternal age to come. The Bible’s Book of Revelation says ‘The glory and honour of the nations’ will be carried into City of God (Rev 21:26).

Once there was a time when Picasso had not sketched a dove, when Handel had not written the Hallelujah chorus, when no-one knew the magical relation between e, i, pi, 1 and zero, when no-one had ever written a gospel or a sonnet.

Today or tomorrow some art will be created that will loved for a thousand or ten thousand years.

Two thoughts

Two obvious thoughts flow:

  1. How can anyone believe we are not made in the image of God? That we are not his sketches, melodies, novels, theorems? That he didn’t create us to create this stuff to celebrate his glory of which he contained too much to keep to himself?
  2. Buy a pencil-sharpener.

 

If you’re human, this is for you

Handle with care.

So what makes you different from an animal? And does it matter?

Theologians have the most interesting and radical answer. They tell us of course that we are stamped with ‘imageo dei‘, the image of God. Unlike the animals, humans do faith, hope and love.

Chimpanzees
Fail.

Are we the only ones? We can speculate that intelligent aliens may arise somewhere else in the Universe and also bear the imago dei, and perhaps in different ways. Maybe only together with all of them will the fulness of God be properly expressed.

Either way, if the theologians are right, a lot of us have to think differently. The standard model in most Western heads probably sees humans as bits of grit, epiphenomenal crumbs from creation’s picnic, odd growths on a damp rock. There’s a decent argument for that, when we think of how small we are and what common stuff we’ve been manufactured from.

But there’s also a good argument the other way. In zillions of attempts, evolution has repeatedly invented the eye or the wing, but we only know of one species who even think about bearing the imageo dei: wonderful us. 1

And if we are the Universe’s God-bearers, another good argument follows that we may be what the Universe itself is all about. Small? Doesn’t matter. Mostly water? Matters even less. Thanks to us, the Universe includes beings that are self-aware and can believe and doubt, and love and hate, and dream of eternity.

 

My book More than Bananas is available as a free Kindle and ebook download as well as in paid versions.

 

The fractal God

It’s all the same to him

first fractalIf you find something that has a pattern and you crank up the magnification and see the same pattern, you’ve found a fractal — an object that’s self-similar at different scales.

Nature is full of them. Tree branches fork the same way when they are the size of trunks or the size of twigs. Rivers split the same way into deltas and streams and trickles. All broccoli is roughly fractal but there is an insanely fractal variety called Romanesco, ideal for feeding to mathematicians. Snowflakes are fractal.

‘Fractal’ is a helpful lens for looking at God and God-stuff. For example:

Parables of the Kingdom are fractal. When Christ taught about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed that grew to be a great plant, what was he talking about? A word that grips the heart? A change of behaviour that influences a community? A mass-movement that changes a continent? All of them. Parables are true at many different scales, because all are curated by the same God.

Faithfulness is fractal. God shepherds our whole lives, and our tiniest moments. It is, therefore, worth praying for something as big as a whole good life, and as fleeting as a car-parking space. Both are an appeal to the kindness of God, just at different scales.

His mercy is fractal. Of course he cares for the whole flock, but he also puts his coat on and heads out for the lost sheep; scale doesn’t come into it. He values the lost teddy bear as much as the lost Bible translation.

Transformation is fractal. The resurrection of Christ (which from our perspective happened at a single point in history and at a certain location) is the same sort of thing as the re-creation of the whole Universe. The essence is the same, the scale is different. And in our current setting, small-scale victories have a place in his purposes just as large-scale ones do.

His peace is fractal. Our anxieties exist at many different scales. Sometimes, for example, we suffer big and small losses at the same time. And sometimes God seems to deal with the wrong scale at the wrong time. Little gifts from him give testimony to his intricate touch; at the same time the big things, the things that really matter, seem to be all unfixed. It’s natural to resent this, but in another way we should welcome God mending the small things as a reminder that he also has the big things in hand.

His pleasure is fractal.  I don’t think God is more pleased by 25000 people worshipping in a tent as he is by one person’s act of quiet submission or patience. He possibly nudges the angels to point it out either way. ‘Look at my servant Job!’

Of course God works in fractal way, exercising the same attention with  the very small and the very great. Since he is infinite, all the scales probably look much the same to him.

Four things to think about when praying for healing

Four Point Decoration by MeThese pointers:

  1. It’s all about Jesus.
  2. It’s now and not yet
  3. It’s internal and external
  4. It comes in weakness

are how the Kingdom of God is breaking in (as I blogged earlier). Healing is a part of the kingdom, so we can think about it in the same way. As follows:

  1. It’s all about Jesus. Healing is about meeting Christ, and about his priorities for us.  We put ourselves in his hands and ask him for help. He is King: kings act. The blind beggar called out, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ meaning ‘So you’re the King? Do your job.’
  2. It’s now and not yet. Some healing comes now; all will come later. The exact blend of what you get now and what you get later is up to the King. But we must focus on the now: too much healing prayer (in my experience) focusses on some vague future point which is a cop-out.
  3. It’s internal and external. Healing is never really about a single organic solution. It’s also always about our heart and our relationships. It accepts Western medicine which focusses on repairs, but extends far beyond it. So, for example, the person with a stomach ulcer clearly doesn’t just need a cure for ulcers. Healing prayer embraces all this wholeness, one reason why it is encouraged to happen within the wider context of the church’s leadership and pastoral care structure (as in James 5:14).
  4. It comes in weakness. So our approach to the sick (and when praying for ourselves) is gentle, tentative, loving; not desperate to prove something.

The Primaeval Prologue as a reverse-engineered smoothie

You know it’s good for you

A smoothie: there it is in front of you, but you have no idea what’s in it. Somebody has to tell you what the ingredients are. Reality is like that.

Here's what we drink...
Here’s what we drink…

The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis are called the “Primaeval Prologue,” and they are rather different from the rest of the book.

Once you get to the safe waters of Genesis 12, you know you are being helicoptered into the Middle Bronze Age and the scenery is familiar enough from all other kinds of historical documents that have been dug up over the centuries. Genesis 12 and onwards is Bronze Age literature with Bronze Age conventions, and it’s not much of a stretch to see it as broadly historical.

Genesis 1-11 is different. It talks about Creation, the Garden of Evil, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. It’s hard to shoehorn that into what we currently think we know of pre-history: human evolution, the development of languages, the way the world seems always to have known suffering, rather than having a time of perfection that was upended by human sin.

Not only that, but the stories in the Primaeval Prologue themselves seem to be … well different. Adam, for example, is not so much a name as the word for ‘mankind’. Then you have talking snakes and metaphorical trees.  And people who live 900 years. It’s as if the Bible is trying to tell us something. What’s it saying? Perhaps it’s saying the Prologue is much more about reality than it is about history. It’s really, as my Old Testament lecturer told me, about ‘who we are and what we are to do.’

But here's what it looks like
But here’s what it looks like

Reality is presented to us like a smoothie, already whizzed to a mush. The Primaeval Prologue tells us the ingredients: it’s a reverse-engineered smoothie. Here are these ingredients:

  • God made everything, and he made it good
  • People have chosen independence over trust and we are all caught up in this and it’s caused a lot of problems.
  • Disaster and recovery is an engine of history — the Flood is the archetype.
  • People coming together, achieving something, thinking they don’t need God, then toppling over, is another engine of history, true of corporations and countries — the Tower of Babel is the archetype.

Creation, fall, death, loss, coming together, falling short, falling apart are the ingredients of the smoothie called ‘reality’. They are history’s heartbeat: God’s creation and recreation; human rebellion; networks re-forming; on and on.

This is a much more fun text, much more profound, and much more useful than if it were merely history.


Bonus material — another way of saying that same thing that physicists might like: the Primaeval Prologue as a Fourier transform

Suppose you were able to express reality as a single complicated waveform.  Call that trace ‘reality’.  It would be quite a scribble.

Physicists know a beautiful piece of maths (called a Fourier analysis) that says every single possible scribble, however complicated, can be expressed as a sum (or in the limit an integral) of a bunch of beautiful, regular sine waves. If you find enough different sine waves and put them together carefully enough, you can reproduce any scribble, any signature, anything that can be drawn without a pencil leaving the paper.

So the complex scribble (or waveform) is ‘reality.’ The writer of the Primaeval Prologue did a Fourier analysis of it. And the stories in Genesis 1-11 are the resultant sine waves, simple things that everyone can understand. Sum them together, and you explain who we are and what we are to do.

Nice.

Here’s a link that explains the Fourier Transform. Unbelievably, it uses the same metaphor of a smoothie as I used earlier on. Equally unbelievably, it demonstrates how to transform a sketch of Homer Simpson in a series of sine waves.


You can read much more about this sort of thing in my book More than Bananas, How the Christian faith works for me and the whole world, which is free on Kindle.

The Netflix ‘chaos monkey’ and the problem of evil

Monkey business

Here’s a thing.

Netflix’s software engineers put into Netflix a program called the ‘chaos monkey.’ Its job is to go through Netflix’s servers, randomly wreaking havoc.
09-monkeys
Why do they do this? Because they wanted to be ‘constantly testing our ability to succeed despite failure.‘ Chaos monkey taught them to build programmes that continue to work with bad stuff happening all around. The random, mindless destructivity leads to better systems.

Enter Thomas Aquinas (13th century theological alpha male). He quotes and then adds to Augustine, (fourth century theological alpha male) 1:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Augustine (by Lewis Comfort Tiffany)
Aquinas by Carlo_Crivelli
Aquinas by Carlo_Crivelli

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Evil is God’s chaos monkey, and the world is better for it.

Maybe.

 

‘You are not thinking. You are merely being logical’

If you want to know about mystery, ask a quantum physicist

Solvay, 1927
The famous Solvay conference of 1927. Bohr is middle row, far right. Others present include Erwin Schrodinger, Wolfgang Pauli, Arthur Compton, Wernher Heisenberg, Lawrence Bragg (who won the Nobel Prize aged just 25), Paul Dirac, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, C T R Wilson and Owen Richardson (who was born just down the road from where I grew up). Each won the Nobel Prize for physics. They still dominate the undergraduate physics syllabus today. I stayed at that hotel as part of a writing prize and have seen the book signed by this astonishing assembly.

Here’s the world according to the very quotable Neils Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics.

‘Prediction is very difficult, especially concerning the future.’

‘How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.

‘The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.

‘You are not thinking. You are merely being logical.

I borrowed these quotes from here.

Book Review ‘The Sparrow’ by Mary Doria Russell

My monthly review of a wonderful book for those of us navigating the space between faith and doubt.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Sparrow
This is a gem, a wonderful book.

It’s a novel first, a science-fiction novel second: in other words, it has rich characters, a compelling plot, and leaves you with much to think about. The SF element is done seamlessly well with good hard science and coherent thinking about another world and how it might work.

The plot is all about a Jesuit mission to another culture, what happened there, and how it affected the hero, a Jesuit priest and translator.

I suspect Mary Doria Russell gave her story an SF context only because on earth, most of the strange tribes have already been encountered, if not by Jesuits then by their Protestant missionary cousins.

Underlying the whole tale all are deep questions about God, about faith, redemption, surrender and devotion.

It really is a wonderful book, and shows perhaps how hollow much of the rest of the SF universe really is. (Not that that stops me enjoying it: it’s just that this book is so much richer.)

It rightly won prizes. This is the only SF book I would recommend my wife should ever read. It’s a wonderful novel, not to be missed.

View all my reviews