Another Note, Another Table

22 01 2014

a-diner

I was so taken by the note I’d run across the other day in Nebraska (see recent blog “Note on a Table”), I figured I’d return to see if lightning struck twice. It did. Same coffee shop, different table, another note. Does this guy see me coming? Does he regularly leave his missives at the table for any random person to read? Is this his way of “getting the word out”? Whatever his reasons, here is another letter I discovered from Mr. (or is it Mrs. ?) D.B. Wyatt.

Nothing but Now
by D. B. Wyatt

“Probably Not”

I see what I see. All I’ve got is what I have. A couple of grown kids, a pleasant spouse, a few kicks and bruises doled out by life. Some irreparable friendships, a few lies for safe-keeping, a good dog, a comfortable house with a fenced back yard for the grandchildren some day (knock on wood). And some stories. Quite a few of them, actually. Life lived at the micro level, where paying attention is required. You see things others don’t — and probably don’t want to. Sometimes you have to shake your head and look again. A memory of something very small, happened on a Tuesday afternoon about 3,000 Tuesday afternoons ago. You remember. But you’re not sure why. Sometimes you are.

I’ve seen a lot. All I’ve got is what I’ve had. Some poems published in reputable magazines. Long conversations with friends long since gone. A run-in once with William Faulkner. He and his wife were visiting Omaha for some writers’ conference at the college where I taught, and he had been asked to speak. My better half and I were selected to take “Bill and Estelle” out for drinks and dinner afterwards. They both drank more than they ate and got into a big row about money. I made the fatal mistake of siding with Estelle to minimize the embarrassment it was causing all of us. Didn’t end that well. Then there was my friendship with Gus, my mechanic for 30+ years. Smartest guy I ever knew. Would quote Wittgenstein while fixing my carburetor. I asked him once if he believed in God. He told me, “Wittgenstein said, ‘Since the mystical is inexpressible, there is nothing more to be said.’” That was his reply. That’s all he ever said about the subject. Every once in awhile I’d catch him walking to the local Baptist church on a Sunday morning, all dressed up, smart shoes, bow tie. Alone. Never quite figured Gus out.

If you focus on the frame, that’s all you see. If life is supposed to add up, you’ll only see the additions. But if it isn’t ~ if it’s supposed to not add up, which is presumably where faith comes in, then we’re stuck doing additions while the truth is not a sum but some product, a quotient. I’m reminded of my early math lessons when I thought I’d go that route instead of writing poetry: “The derivative of a product is not the product of the derivatives.” You’re not even asking the right questions if you think life is supposed to add up. Is God supposed to add up? If God were God, he wouldn’t.

So probably not. I’ll keep my manifesto for another day, just in case. But God? This is about all you can say:

(f g)≠ f t g t





Note on a Table

18 01 2014

diner_table_setting

Had to go to Nebraska for a couple of different reasons. Went to a coffee shop for breakfast and found a note lying on the table. This is what it said.

 

My Future’s Manifesto
by D. B. Wyatt

“Probably”

I can see it and hear it now: Computers so smart they can actually mimic spirituality, because we’ll find that that a sufficient amount of computing power actually leads to an innate exocentricity – the impulse to “go beyond” one’s capacities, and this inevitably leads to a belief in God. The replication of intelligence begets replication, which by law of finite extrapolation, always leads to a desire for more. So get smart enough and you’ll want more than you have, and need more than you are. It’s a natural urge, which means that religion would have been developed whether or not there was a God. This doesn’t disprove the existence of God, but it makes it much less likely that such a being exists.

I can see it and hear it now. Computers so smart they can out-write, out-rhyme, out-paint, and generally out-create us. Because we’ll find certain innate algorithms built into nature that are expressly designed to create, and we’ll be able to replicate (and even manipulate and perhaps even improve upon) those algorithms in computers, but given that their computing power is so much greater, they will be able to out-perform us in creative tasks. So a computer will be funnier, more charming, even more sexy, than its human counterpart.

So religion will become a relic of the past, a natural stage in the progression of human intelligence, as we find that computers themselves begin to get not only personalities, but faiths. And this will prove, convincingly to most people, the true provenance of religious belief.

We’ll also come to the conclusion that we actually aren’t moral animals, we humans, and that our instincts for goodness are actually adaptability strategies in order to get along. We’ll find that there is no right and wrong, technically speaking, and that such concepts are developed for the propagation of the species. We make this shit up in order to survive, in other words. And it usually works, except when it doesn’t. It backfires because nature backfires. Every natural cycle is incomplete. Nature isn’t perfect – if it were, it wouldn’t change. Evolution is the process of attempting to reach perfection, which would be homeostasis. Religions call it eternity.

Anyway, all these religious impulses, all this morality wrought out of guilt, all this inspiration that supposedly came from the gods – all of this will, in time, be understood for precisely what it is – mechanisms built into the process of change for the purpose of insuring the survival of the host. Morality has no actual moral content of its own. Things are what we make them to be, and we make things that reflect what we want to be.

Will this lead to chaos and a rupture in the social fabric? Hopefully not, as people begin to accept that to live is better than to die, and so we must do everything we can to insure not only our own survival, but the survival of our progeny. This instinct alone, the desire and will to survive, will be recognized as the ultimate impulse—the ultimate religious impulse, if you will—that must be protected. Living will become the God. Life will be the God. Life will be God. God will be Life. It will be reduced to that kind of simplicity. There will be no need for sufficient complexity. It will be a call for sufficient simplicity. The simpler, the better, the more elegant, the more economical, the more efficient. Nature is actually on course to becoming more simple. It’s just that the road to get there is pretty complex ~

“I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” Blaise Pascal





The Shallows and the Deep: The Democratization of Truth

15 04 2013

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I found myself in one of those awkward situations yesterday where I was leading a discussion that was getting sidetracked by sincere questions that I knew from experience would lead to nothing but a series of tangled dead-ends, all of which begin with the implied qualification, “For what it’s worth,” to which the answer in each case was, “Not much.”

Okay, let me get more specific. It was about evolution and whether humans are simply the product of natural selection, or whether, perhaps, there’s a little more to it than that, like… say… God.

(*Qualifier: I’m no fan of creationism or any other religious attempt to usurp the basic theory of evolution. Nor, however, do I buy into the naturalistic assumptions of Darwinian theory, given that I believe that somewhere along the path to full humanity, God saw fit to establish a loving relationship with his creation and did so by giving us spirits, which I consider to be a basic element of our humanity, and likely the place where our species began. How, when, and where, exactly, did he do this? Ummm… January 1st, 10,000 BC, 6am local time? Humans are irreducibly spiritual beings, which entails the simple fact that our core selves cannot be reduced to the effects of naturalistic evolution.)

Okay, right? So boring as hell, so pre-2008. But please note: this wasn’t a discussion at a local chapter of the Society of Skeptics. No, this was an after-church discussion group at my local parish made up of five people plus myself: three college students from the school where I teach, all of whom happen to be wicked smart and traditionally conservative believers (no, not an oxymoron); our priest; and a graduate student from Caltech. You get three guesses who my interlocutor was.

And no, it wasn’t my priest. Or my students.

Let me get specific-er. Caltech guy was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of evolution in no way presumes that God could not be a part of such a process and that 2.) humans are in no way qualitatively different from other species of animals but only quantitatively so, due to the evolutionary advantage of coming late to the party called existence, which has the wonderful fringe benefit of a measurably larger prefrontal cortex. Ergo, there’s nothing terribly unique about us that can’t be traced back to the circumference of our brains.

I was saying (arguing) that 1.) the process of Darwinian naturalistic evolution, to which my Caltech friend was referring, actually does presume both that God is not a part of the process and that the totality of our existence can be explained by simple reference to naturalistic causes; and 2.) that contrary to this, I believe humans are qualitatively different from other species of animals due to the fact that we were created imago Dei and have thus been endowed with spirits, which I take to be an uncontested fact in a setting of Christian believers (the fact, that is, that we are bodies and spirits and not merely bodies).

Caltech guy was incredulous at this, “this” being my position that we are qualitatively different from other animals due to our being the only ones created in the image of God, a point which I take to be one of the least sexy points I’ve made in probably, oh, three or four years. He was incredulous not because what I was saying contradicted scripture, which it does not, but because it contradicted his view of evolution, which he takes to be a theologically value neutral proposition, which it is not. No matter that what I was saying is implied (or explicitly stated) from Genesis to Revelation, and that Jesus makes repeated assertions throughout the gospels of our being unique by dint of our unique relationship to God, or that Paul insists again and again on the ontological priority of the human-God relationship vis-a-vis the rest of creation (Martin Buber’s I/Thou idea). Is it even prudent at such a point to start trotting out texts that speak directly to this issue (Romans 8:29, 1 Cor. 11:7, 15:49, 2 Cor. 3:18, Colossians 3:10, etc.)?

Regarding the whole idea of the biblical meaning of imago Dei, I refer you to this careful study by John Piper:

http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/the-image-of-god

A few years back I did a talk for a local church on the biblical evidence for animals having souls (nephesh in the Greek), which I gathered was a good enough reason to treat animals with respect and care, and I was practically run out of the church by my own species. My point then, as now, is that the bible makes distinctions between animals and humans, bodies, souls, and spirits; and this is but one reason why hard-core evolutionists have such trouble with the Christian position, because we insist there is a God in whose image we humans are created, which is a complete non-starter for them (and understandably so).

But it isn’t just our position anymore. Even among scientific ranks there is division. Ian Tattersall, paleontologist and curator emeritus with the American Muesum of Natural History in New York and a noted expert on evolution, has argued that humans represent a “totally unprecedented entity” on the planet, and that “Homo sapiens is not simply an improved version of its ancestors – it’s a new concept” (from his book Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness, [1998]). It’s important to note that Tattersall is not coming from any particular religious perspective in saying this. He’s simply making the point that, scientifically speaking, “the notion of human evolution as being a linear trudge from primitivism to perfection is totally wrong” (from his Wikipedia page).

But back now to my Caltech interlocutor and our sabre rattling at yesterday’s church discussion. I found the whole give and take disheartening for a few reasons. First, I know precious little about what my Caltech friend is studying in the field of quantum mechanics, and given that he is the far more trained person than I in this area, I’d fully expect him to begin rolling his eyes if I started to put up too many objections if he happened to be leading a discussion on, say, whether light is a particle or a wave. So yesterday I tried to keep my comments civil and not roll my eyes as he continued to press me for answers to questions that, to be quite honest, betrayed any real familiarity with the issue beyond a casual grasp of basic concepts that could be gleaned from a close reading of one or two books on the subject. But secondly, and even more depressingly, was the tenor of his questions, the rank presumptuousness with which he questioned my position and the utter incredulity he expressed over rather basic and time-honored suggestions such as, for example, that human beings are unique in creation.

Why is it that when any topic related to theological concerns comes up, everyone thinks themselves an expert? Why? Because theology is, by design, accessible even to children. We begin asking deep theological questions at the age of five. The mistake comes in the presumption that its very accessibility allows anyone, regardless of training, to somehow master the more complicated ideas — which theologians have been thinking over and wrestling with for thousands of years — in a single afternoon’s discussion over Chinese food. It would be like my assuming I could question a physicist’s foundational assumptions about photons because I can wire a light switch.

This kind of presumption is rife in today’s know-it-all “scientistic” culture, where gigabytes of information can be gathered in a single minute’s Google search sweep. But information is not knowledge, and so the truth — of anything — is not subject to majority rule or the principles of democracy or the hegemony of the scientific method. There is nothing inherently democratic (or, for that matter scientific) about the truth. It is entirely autocratic, even despotic, it its exactitude, by which I mean that even though our knowledge of any truth may be partially or even entirely limited, the truth still stands on its own as is, willy-nilly. And yes, this means that I believe in objective truth. And for those who think this a trifle bit naïf, I offer this bit of wisdom from philosopher Roger Scruton who said, “The man who tells you truth doesn’t exist is inviting you not to believe him. So don’t.”

In our age of democratizing claims to truth, it seems that anyone can question anyone any time about anything. Self-critical scrutiny of one’s own position, on the other hand, is a scarce commodity. How sometimes I wish theology was not accessible to children. But then, what would it be? The provenance of scholars only? Indeed, St. Jerome was right when he said about scripture, which I extend here to the task of theology, that it is “shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever touching bottom.”

And, if I may add, deep enough for quantum physicists to drown in.





Trust vs. Mistrust: 0-18 months

8 04 2013

Papa Will Carrousel B

Fascinating to me that my son, almost 20 months old, has just gone through the first stage of development (according to Erik Erikson), Trust vs. Mistrust. What’s so fascinating — and poignant — is how a child at this (st)age has learned that the mother’s face is not always present, and so in a defensive posture, an ego is formed that separates the child from his environment so that the negation is manageable. The poignant part is how William is constantly repeating the names he’s come up with for his various caretakers other than Mommy: Poppy, Sissy, Ammi, Appa and so on, as if to say to himself and those around him, “Look, I have other people in the world, who I can count on one hand, who I can trust. Isn’t that great? Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” He says it almost in desperation, but also in celebration. It’s that tension we’re all familiar with, called being human.

It’s all a response to the loss of the Face, according to Jim Loder in his book “The Logic of Transformation.” Jim was my friend, professor, and mentor at Princeton Seminary, and my erstwhile spiritual guide. We met regularly over the course of 5-6 years and had many, many deep discussions about such matters, and I am forever indebted to him for making the whole business of parenting so much more interesting.

I remember the best piece of advice I ever got from Jim, which he said to a small group of us who were taking his doctoral seminar back in the early 90s. Never tell a child you love him or her after they’ve done something good, he told us. You can tell them you’re proud of them, Job well done!, etc, but never tell them at that point that you love them, lest they begin to believe that they are loved for what they do rather than for who they are. Instead, tell them you love them at the most innocuous moments, like when they’ve just walked in from the back yard to grab a snack, or when they’re ready to go to bed, or they’re in the back seat on the way home from your picking them up at school. If you do this, they’ll learn, slowly but surely, that they are loved for who they are.

In the end, isn’t that kind of what it’s all about? (And, I’m happy to say, Jenna and I have heeded that advice for both our daughter Belle, who is almost eight, and for Will.)

And so little William, having graduated from this first stage ready to be transformed but yet again into the image of Christ (the telios of all Christians), repeats over and over again the names of his ohana, of his peeps, somewhat in desperation but also in celebration out his growing sense of a growing reality. God bless that boy (and all little boys and girls at this stage in life). May little Will, as he moves through the years, be able to repeat those names in a growing sense of celebration, again and again, forever.





The Jig is (almost) Up

5 04 2013

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I think I’m slowly coming to terms with the whole phenomenon of the atheist fad for the ruse it truly is; that it isn’t so much about whether God actually exists or not (that’s an accidental philosophical by-product) but more about not liking to be told what to believe and how to live. It’s essentially an anti-establishment impulse wrought to a blunt point. I find that atheists are generally of two types: 1) malcontents who don’t like to be told what to do or how to live, even though they’ve been told what to do all their lives–and continue to be told what to do by their betters; 2) and existential elitists (this includes scientist types, bitter and/or entitled members of the cultural elite, and second-tier philosophers), who don’t like to be told what to believe, even though they are told what to believe by their betters every day.

Look, I’m the first to admit that one of the most aggravating establishments known to humankind is the Church, which has had a lot of desperately terrible things done in its name over the last 2,000 years, which gives a lot of people a lot of reasons to be anti-establishment. But the plain fact is, the Church has also done innumerably good and wonderful things over that same span of time, things that don’t typically make the five o’clock news because good news historically makes for bad copy. Just like any human institution, it’s a mix of good and bad, tawdry and sublime. Like Martin Luther once said, “The Church may be a whore, but the Church is my mother.”

And let’s admit it, the standard atheist explanation for existence is just plain ugly and brutish. They may claim their explanations for existence are elegant, even beautiful, but that’s only because they focus on either the products of existence (a sunset, supernovas) or its mechanics (action at a distance, the double helix). Yeah, I think those things are beautiful, too, but that has absolutely no bearing on whether the Atheist explanation for why they exist is beautiful (or not). That’s like pointing to a beautiful child who is athletically gifted and concluding that she must come from a wonderful family. Huh?!? One has nothing to do with the other. Fact is, the atheist’s explanation for life is existentially threadbare. There’s nothing beautiful or mysterious about it. It fails the aesthetic test, and fails it miserably. I miss the atheists of old who at least had the requisite huevos to understand that God’s death was nothing to celebrate, but instead was something to mourn because it made for a pretty bleak existence if it was true. But there aren’t many of those folks around anymore (the Sartres and Nietzsches of the world) because it takes “men with chests” (as C.S. Lewis put it) to believe what they did.

Scientists are concerned with the questions of what and how, which they happen to be quite good at answering. The trouble comes when they assume that, in answering the questions of what and how, they’ve simultaneously answered the question of why, too. But that’s just… well, bad science. I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. Anderson. I’d been moved a few years ahead in math because apparently I showed a proclivity for numbers and abstract quantities. Actually, I remember loving math. By my sophomore year in high school I figured I’d reached a sufficiently advanced stage of math that I could justifiably start asking the question “why” certain mathematical properties held. Big mistake. Mr. Anderson looked at me like I was from Mars when I started to press him on why, exactly, the Pythagorean theorem worked. Why?!? he said incredulously. What do you mean Why? It was the last math class I ever took, at the tender age of fifteen. Point is, you can know the what and the how of something and not have the vaguest idea of the why. You can know the what and how of material existence, for example, and not have a damn clue about the why of it.

I read and re-read the stories of Scripture that answer the questions of our existence, and I find them compelling, even beautiful, for a number of reasons, not least because they have the feel and smell and taste of reality. They’re so un-made up. Take, for example, the stories surrounding Christ’s post-resurrection appearances. These do not read like tracts someone conjured up in order to sound convincing. In fact, on one level they’re very unconvincing. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus at first, women are the first to report his resurrection (which you’d never say even if it were true because, back in those days, that didn’t exactly add credibility to your story), and still, after Jesus has made an appearance, some of the disciples don’t believe. The first century was not a stranger to rumors of ghosts and apparitions and hallucinations. It took fish over a fire on the shores of a lake to convince the apostles of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

For these very reasons, the stories have a feel of authenticity, an eye-witness vibe to them. They’re life size, exactly what you’d expect from eye-witness accounts, so that in their expressed incredulity shines the very heart of their mystery. They contradict each other in small places, make the ones who are doing the reporting seem daft. There’s little, in other words, of propaganda about them (though those with a political or theological or ideological axe to grind see propaganda dripping from every word. “To a hammer…” and all that).

This is all to say that the atheist jig is up, at least for me. They–atheists, too many of them–just seem too angry to be thoughtfully engaged, too cock-sure to be trusted, and too agenda-driven to be taken with anything more than a grain of salt. And they too often end up foisting themselves on their own petard by insisting on logical, proof-ridden arguments for their positions, positions that so often lack precisely those things: logical precision and any proofs beyond anecdotal evidence. Those who believe in God, on the other hand, have no trouble with anecdotal evidence and aren’t imprisoned by the constraints of airtight logic simply because they’ve never claimed for an historical second that the position of faith can be proved. Faith rests on anecdotal evidence, on witnesses with holes in their testimonies, on the intuition of the masses. And when it comes down to it, that’s all our explanations have to live up to.





The Tryanny of Experience

17 03 2013

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We live in an age when a person’s best authority is herself. What a poor and impoverished replacement that is for what used to count for authority: inherited wisdom, otherwise known as the giants on whose shoulders we stood in order to see farther. But in our hubris, we’ve jumped off their shoulders and claim to be able to see farther and know better, all from our vaulted perspective 6 inches off the ground.

Sure, there have always been things about our past (our traditions and elders) that we’ve needed to repudiate: slavery, the subjugation of women, child labor, bear baiting… But we’ve taken their whole system, all of their assumptions about the world and each other, both good and bad, and tossed it aside. We’ve reinvented the wheel and called it an improvement to ride around on square blocks. That’s the problem with progress… we always assume it means progress; or rather, that progress is always a good thing. Is the hydrogen bomb really an improvement over dynamite? Well, yes, in a way…

By elevating our own experience as the ultimate authority in matters of life and death, we’ve placed ourselves at the middle of the universe and essentially sacralized our perspectives. There is no room here for humility in this new order of things — the order of I (or should I say “i”?), and as a result, we have no claim to final authority, since your experience is your experience, and mine is mine, and whose going to gainsay anyone’s experience?

Well, I am. I’m not only going to gainsay your experience, I’m going to gainsay mine as well. Why? Because I’ve been paying attention the last 48 years of living, and if I’ve learned anything about human nature, starting with myself, it’s this: that much of the time we’re right about things, but almost an equal amount of time, we’re wrong, which means that at best, it’s a 50/50 proposition to hold ourselves up as an authority over much of anything terribly important. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. But here’s the zinger: those things that we stand the chance of being most wrong about are precisely those things that we hold most dear because they valorize our human proclivity for provincial thinking and denial, which is the second thing I’ve learned in my 48 years of paying attention: we live in denial much of the time in order to validate our own view of things, and we do all of this as a coping mechanism for the nihilism that we breathe in all round us.

And where does this leave us? That at the very places where we most need to have authorities outside of ourselves to give us perspective, we are least likely to avail ourselves of them. And so we take the wisdom of our ancestors and reform it to reflect our prejudices, and we fashion the religion and politics of our forefathers and mothers and mold them into our own biases and tastes. We change everything we believe to adjust to our experiences, never for a second thinking to ask ourselves whether our experiences themselves are open to other interpretations, or whether our experiences might actually be misleading. If this is the way I understand what’s happened to me, then by golly, that’s precisely what happened to me! Right?

Never was there a time so many of us trusted so unquestioningly our own personal view of things. Never was there a time our own personal view of things was so influenced by the deluded voices around us.

La la la la la la….





Fortunes and Futures

11 03 2013

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Could this be one of those times in human history when the future looks more bleak than the past? I look out ahead of me and don’t like what I see: explanations of our existence bereft of any soul; theories of our origins that could be explained with a pencil and a slide rule; ideas about love that are the provenance of chemists and not poets; and poetry itself, reduced to nothing but syntax arranged by a computer.

Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “I miss culture and I want it back” (from her “The Death of Adam and Other Essays” collection, I think). I join in her lament. Scientists, those high priests of truth, are the self-appointed experts on everything, a position we all happily oblige them. After all, says we, if they can invent a light bulb, surely they can explain the mysteries of life. And so, slowly but surely, eternity morphs into infinity, poetry into word-play, erotic love into the chemical consummation of oxytocin and dopamine. You see this kind of reductionist metamorphosis all around you if you know where — and more importantly, how —  to look. Ads on TV, the perfume fragrance strips of magazines, pop music. It’s all about appearances, about glitz and glamor, pomp and ceremony, OMG! and Highlight reels. Even talk of content these days is so stylized, so self-conscious. Our souls collectively waste away as we settle for the Quick Fix.

Yes, I believe in souls, and that we embody them, and that because of this, our existence is greater than the sum of our parts, more complicated than our chemical alchemy, more mysterious than multiverses. Even philosophers, long since relegated to the back of the cultural and intellectual bus (I mean, who’s the last living philosopher you’ve read?), think they can cash in on the cheapest bit of intellectual property left for intellectual speculators: religion. It won’t be long before religion becomes an artifact of history, and supernatural belief a diagnosis in the DSM. Flannery O’Connor was right when she said that nihilism is in the very air we breathe.

Count me among the relics if and when that time comes, because explaining life by nothing more than a series of fantastical collisions of atoms does nothing for me. It doesn’t even make me sigh. It’s like being hit over the head by a fortune cookie. I mean, what’s the point?