Book Review: Silence

SilenceSilence by Shūsaku Endō

This story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan is affecting on many levels. The first is the beauty and economy of the writing and the translation. The darkest parts of the narrative are set in beautiful prose. I was also struck by the affection with which the early narrator and protagonist, Rodrigues, describes the villagers among whom he is living. They exist in the deepest poverty but they provide for and shelter Rodrigues and his companion Garrpa.

Second, the historical details are abundant and helpful and do not get in the way of the story. Rodrigues is based on a historical figure who . Rodrigues and his companions have a goal of finding a second historical figure, Ferreira, who is believed to have apostatized. The lives of the fictional characters revolve around historical figures in the places where those figures lived and moved.

Third, there is Kichijiro, a Judas-Iscariot-meets-Gollum character who follows Rodrigues through the entire story. He elicits as much response from Rodrigues, and such a broad range of response, as any other character or event in the story. He befriends, he connives, he betrays, he survives, he falls and repents again and again. He tests the capacity of Rodrigues to forgive, and in the end he calls out of Rodrigues his true sense of his calling as a priest as he asks Rodrigues to hear his confession and grant absolution.

Fourth is the role of silence. The God who brought Rodrigues to Japan is silent as the persecution of the believers grows. The ocean that brought Rodrigues is silent as well. Is Rodrigues expecting aid from or by way of the ocean?

Fifth is the role of faith and doctrine in the story. The Japanese officials insist that Christianity cannot survive in a pure form in Japan. That’s probably true of Christianity in any time and place. It becomes absorbed into the culture. In my lifetime in the Western hemisphere I’ve seen Jesus visualized as the theist Che Guevara of liberation theology, or as a bandana-wearing hippie of the Jesus-People movement. More recently we’ve seen Jesus arm wrestling a Halloween-costume Satan in a social media meme for some battle or other in our contemporary culture wars. Rodrigues seems to understand that God does not change even though how we see and approach God might.

If you are looking for a beautifully written, thought-provoking, albeit somber book to read this winter, Silence might be a good choice.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

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Darkness Isn’t All Bad . . .

Except When It Is

The first time I saw the Milky Way, some time in the late 1960s, I was on a ballfield at a Boy Scout camp in Morris County, NJ. It was awe inspiring, even to a largely clueless junior high kid. It’s no longer possible to see the Milky Way in many, if any parts of New Jersey. Maybe deep in the Pine Barrens or in the northwestern hills, but probably not within fifty miles of New York City.

Center_of_the_Milky_Way_Galaxy_from_the_mountains_of_West_Virginia_-_4th_of_July_2010
Center of the Milky Way Galaxy from the mountains of West Virginia. Photo by Forest Wander from Cross Lanes, USA (Center Milky Way Galaxy Mountains) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
The ability to view such sights is so important that some people are working to create dark sky reserves in such places as central Idaho. The absence of light is essential for those who want to observe celestial phenomena. Light pollution from cities and suburbs interferes with astronomical work that makes use of optical telescopes.

Darkness is beneficial to astronomers and to those of us who relish the sight of the stars and planets on a clear night and who hope to see a meteorite now and then. Darkness, though, has a [clears throat] dark side.

We are now in the liturgical season of Advent, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. Advent occurs as the daylight hours are shortest in the Northern Hemisphere. This alignment of the seasons seems particularly appropriate now. Darkness fills more of the twenty-four hour day. Darkness also seems to want to fill our lives as the social, cultural, and political atmospheres in the United States are dominated by dense clouds of hatred, bigotry, and contempt for those with opposing views.

Darkness characterized the first Advent. The years between Ezra and Nehemiah, the last narratives of the Old Testament, and the Nativity stories of Luke and Matthew were dark years for Israel. Under the Persians, who were in power when Nehemiah rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem, Israel was essentially a vassal state. The Persian overlords were replaced by the Seleucids, including Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and ultimately the Romans.

Through this time Israel carried with them the promise spoken through Isaiah in 49:6 that God would send one who would be “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (ESV) Thinking of Israel during this period calls to mind the candle that remains lit after a Good Friday Tenebrae service. Did Israel remember that promise? When we see Anna and Simeon greeting Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus at the temple we know that some remembered (Luke 2:22–38).

The One who was to be the light for the nations did come. He told us that we were to let our lives shine before others that they would glorify God (Matthew 5:14–16). Yet He who is the light of the world was hidden momentarily in the darkness of the grave. In glory He arose and ascended to heaven, sending the Holy Spirit as a flame, bringing light and passion to our work (Acts 2:1–4). We also have His Word, a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105).

A further remark by Saint Paul seems particularly timely as well: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible.” (Ephesians 5:11–13 ESV) So too this remark by Justice Louis Brandeis: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

As we approach Advent and the short days of winter, and as we await the Second Advent, we can remember that we have sources of light that can help us see through any darkness. Let us live in that light, speaking what we know to be true, kind, and edifying, and shining light on the darkness that is all around us.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Consilience

Consilience: The Unity of KnowledgeConsilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson

In May 2001 Wendell Berry published Life is a Miracle. He wrote it as a response to Consilience, by Edward O. Wilson. Having an affinity for Wendell Berry’s writing, I read Life is a Miracle several years ago. Then this fall I read Alister McGrath’s The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God. McGrath also takes issue with Consilience because of Wilson’s conclusion that ethics and morality can be explained by evolution.

In our current cultural environment many of us carry out our intellectual transactions in the safety of communities of like-minded people. I am as guilty of this as the next person, but since two writers whom I respect took issue with the same book by the same author, I thought I should investigate for myself.

Wilson writes for an educated audience. His writing is, nonetheless, approachable and clear.

The theses with which Berry and McGrath take issue are not hard to find in Consilience. According to Wilson, science is capable of telling us everything we need to know. There is no need for intervention by supernatural forces. All supernatural thinking is “ignorance-based metaphysics” which will retreat “like a vampire before the lifted cross” when presented with “objective truth.” (p. 62)

Of particular interest to theists, specifically Christians who espouse young-earth creation, is Wilson’s take on this doctrine. It must be said that he speaks of the Christian’s God with respect. “Perhaps God did create all organisms,including human beings, in finished form, in one stroke, and maybe it all happened several thousand years ago. But if that is true, He also salted the earth with false evidence in such endless and exquisite detail, and so thoroughly from pole to pole, as to make us conclude first that life evolved, and second that the process took billions of years. Surely Scripture tells us He would not do that. The Prime Mover of the Old and New Testaments is variously loving, magisterial, denying, thunderously angry, and mysterious, but never tricky.” (p, 129–130)

Going farther on the subject of God and God’s involvement in human affairs, Wilson observes “God may exist, He may be delighted in what we are up to on this minor planet, but His fine hand is not needed to explain the biosphere.” (p. 198) It’s interesting that this quote is in a chapter on the social sciences, and in a section on economics.

Wilson uses “empiricism” to refer to a world view that understands the world solely in terms of what is observable. “Transcendentalism” allows the intervention of forces outside of what can be observed with senses extended by technology. “The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century’s version of the struggle for men’s souls. Moral reasoning will either remain centered in idioms of theology and philosophy, where it is now, or it will shift toward science-based material analysis. Where it settles will depend on which world view is proved correct, or at least which is more widely perceived to be correct.” (p. 240).

The final chapter, “To What End,” includes what seems to be a summary statement: “What are we? Where do we come from, How show we decide where to go? Why the toil, yearning, honesty, aesthetics, exaltations, love, hate, deceit, brilliance, hubris, humility, shame, and stupidity that collectively define our species? Theology, which long claimed the subject for itself, has done badly. Still encumbered by precepts based on Iron-Age folk knowledge, it is unable to assimilate the great sweep of the real world now open for examination.” (p. 269) Ouch.

Finally, this: “The legacy of the Enlightenment is the believe that entirely on our own we can know, and in knowing, understand, and in understanding, choose wisely. That self-confidence has risen with the exponential growth of scientific knowledge, which is being woven into an increasingly full explanatory web of cause and effect.” (p. 297). That speaks of a hubris that has gotten humanity into trouble since its appearance in the biosphere.

I am thankful for E.O. Wilson and for his challenges to the hardened dogmas of fundamentalism. They need to be challenged. I am also grateful for the work of writers such as Wendell Berry and Alister McGrath, who have provided alternative narratives that include the work of a just and loving God.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Buy Local, Give Local

Thanksgiving is followed quickly by two important days: Small Business Saturday (Saturday 25 November 2017) and Giving Tuesday (Tuesday 28 November 2017). Intelligent readers will have no trouble deciding what to do on either day. For Giving Tuesday in particular I thought it might be good to highlight some of the small nonprofit organizations that I’ve had contact with this year.

market&allwood_web

I haven’t donated cash to or volunteered with all of these organizations. In fact I’ve volunteered with only two; three if you count playing in the Bloomfield Civic Band as volunteering. The point of this list is to encourage you to think about the charitable organizations in your own local area and think about ways that you can support them on Giving Tuesday and throughout the year.

What I would also like most of all is for you to comment with suggestions for local charities in your area that deserve support. Updates will be posted to my FB page and Twitter feed as they come in. If you and I are friends on FB or Twitter your friends will see the posts and may also be prompted to take action. I do not plan to filter any suggestions out unless they happen to be for some organization that most readers would find abhorrent. Please supply a URL along with the name of the organization.

I look forward to hearing from. Now, here’s my starter list:

Urban Farming, Sustainable Agriculture

Environment

Autism Awareness and Advocacy

Services for the Homeless and Other Neighbors in Need

Welfare of At-Risk Moms and Children

Music Education and Performing Arts

Miscellaneous

  • Friends of the (your town name here) Public Library

From Andy Walsh  (Mostly Pittsburgh Area)

  • Light of Life Rescue Mission serves the needs of the homeless and others in the Pittsburgh North Side community where I work; in fact, their newest facility will be going up where I used to park.
    https://www.lightoflife.org/
  • The Watson Institute provides services for many individuals and families with special needs, including those with autism spectrum diagnoses. The organization has a rich history, having previously served polio patients and working with Jonas Salk in developing the vaccine.
    https://www.thewatsoninstitute.org/

Final Thoughts

It should be clear to any observer, regardless of their political leanings or affiliations, that the current philosophy and actions of the U.S. federal government will make the need for private charitable enterprise much greater for the foreseeable future. Whether the enterprise is care for the environment, care for people who have fallen on hard times, or any of the dozens of other social concerns we could name, private individuals and small organizations will have a greater role to fill to meet the challenges of the coming years. Some may think that is as it should be. No matter; the needs will be there and they will be substantial. This Giving Tuesday I hope we can all stretch our imaginations and our budgets a little to stand in the gap.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl is a memoir, an account of Hope Jahren’s progress as a student and then a scientist working in the academy. It is interspersed with lessons on seed germination, soil properties, plant growth, life cycles, and other botany-related subjects.

Hope Jahren—her full name is Anne Hope Jahren—is a scientist and teacher who is passionate about her chosen field. Of course, that can probably be said of many academics, especially those who have channeled their passion into literature that is accessible by laypeople. This book is not only well written and accessible, though, it is laugh-out-loud funny in places.

The description on page 117 of a visit with several students to Monkey Jungle Island, a tourist attraction in Florida is an excellent example. Later in the narrative Jahren describes a cross-country trip by van to a conference in San Francisco and a terrible crash on an icy interstate highway in the mountains of Colorado. One can almost smell the interior of the van at the end of the trip, that vivid is the description.

While humor, effective instructional writing, and great storytelling move the narrative forward, it is also driven by Hope Jahren’s frustration with the deplorable state of research funding, the status of women in the sciences, and the continuing degradation of the environment.

Being a memoir, the point of Lab Girl is not to deliver a seamless account of Hope Jahren’s life. Still, it is a bit startling that there is little to describe the transition from the Hope Jahren of early struggles, who lived day and night in her lab and survived on pizza and Ensure, to the successful academic who is blissfully married to the perfect husband and hopelessly devoted to their child. It is still heartening to know that she was able to make that transition.

It’s also clear from the narrative that there would also be no Hope Jahren, successful academic, were it not for Bill Hagopian, her long-time lab assistant, good friend, confidant, and Dutch uncle. Bill should tell the story from his side.

Lab Girl would merit five stars from this reviewer were it not for one flaw, the unfettered use of profanity. It’s hard to imagine how Jahren was able to recall in detail conversations that included such language fifteen years or more after they took place unless she kept an exhaustive journal. Even if the conversations are accurately recorded, one has to wonder why it is necessary to include language that is still censored by broadcast media in the United States. It would be easy to recommend this book to grandchildren and other young people who might consider careers in the sciences, but the profanity makes that problematic.

In spite of that, this is a great memoir. The time and effort expended in reading it are well invested.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Under Orion’s Gaze

When I left Mooney’s Garage the other day, Orion stood high in the clear southern sky. Venus was low in the east, having risen thirty minutes before. The sun would not rise for more than an hour, followed by an invisible crescent moon, so I had a clear view of Orion for most of the twenty-five minute walk home.

The constellation Orion
A photograph of Orion through a ground-based telescope.
Photo by Akira Fujii

Orion not a real person, of course. Orion is the name that has been given to a group of stars that form the image of a person, a hero from ancient mythology. Even in brightly lit Northern New Jersey, Orion is clearly visible through much of the year.

Although Orion appears as a two-dimensional image, we know that it consists of stars that are separated by great distances in three dimensions. The five stars that make up Orion’s outline are Rigel (773 light years distant), Saiph (720 light years distant), Betelgeuse (643 light years distant), Bellatrix (240 light years distant), Meissa (1,100 light years distant). The three stars in Orion’s Belt are Alnitak (700 light years distant), Alnilam (1,300 light years distant), and Mintaka (900 light years distant). These eight stars are an average of almost 800 light years away. If we were to travel 800 light years, just over halfway toward Alnilam in the center of Orion’s belt, turn in any direction, and travel 800 light years in that direction, we would not see Orion from the back, side, or top, but an entirely different two-dimensional image. Maybe dogs playing pool. Maybe nothing recognizable.

We know what we see when we look in Orion’s direction. We can even build a three-dimensional model, either physical or computer-generated, that would enable us to see what kind of image those stars would form when viewed from another part of space. But imagine Orion being able to see Earth. Think of what has he seen, especially of humanity’s sojourn here.

Orion has seen the earliest hominids stalking their prey in the savannas of eastern Africa and the Neanderthal clans coping with the rigors of alpine life. On the far northern rim of the earth he might have seen modern humans cross from Siberia into North America, then expand their territory southward as far as he could see. He has seen dynasties and empires rise and collapse. He has seen humanity adapt and cope with flood and drought, famine and plague, unbearable cold and unrelenting heat. He’s seen our worst ignorance and inhumanity and our greatest wisdom and compassion.

Orion, as we thus imagine him, has seen much and yet has stood passively at a distance. God sees all, not in our imaginations but in reality, and has done much. God spoke, and the universe came into existence. God gave that universe, and the Earth in particular, the ability to bring forth life. God placed in that Earth a form of life that could respond to God of its own free will. When that response was contrary to God’s ideal, God responded not by stepping back and watching us destroy ourselves, but by stepping in and giving us a Way in which the consequences of our contrary actions could be undone.

Astronomers tell us that Orion could gaze down on Earth for millions of years into the future. We have hope in a bright future if we can turn away from our ignorance and inhumanity and turn to the One who has walked among us in space-time and who sees us with eyes of compassion and mercy.

Thank you as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: Quantum Physics and Theology

Don’t let the title frighten you. You don’t need to understand quantum physics and you don’t need to have studied theology to enjoy and appreciate Quantum Physics and Theology by John Polkinghorne. Having training or interest in the sciences or theology will enhance your appreciation, but it’s not essential.

polkinghorne_quantum_physics_web

I read this book as a part of a group reading and discussion project hosted by Andy Walsh on the Emerging Scholars Network during September and October 2017. He discussed one chapter in each of five weekly articles. There were on-line video chats as well but they were not recorded. His comments will much more valuable to potential readers than any I could add here, so I would suggest that you read his posts.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Book Review: The Big Question

The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and GodThe Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God by Alister E. McGrath

Science has progressed to the point that it can explain the origins of the universe, life, intelligence, and even ethics and morality by exclusive recourse to natural phenomena. In so doing, science has freed intelligent beings from the tyranny of the theistic superstitions that dominated our benighted past. So say the New Atheists, at least.

Not so fast. So might Alister McGrath say, although he does not do so in those words. Science provides us with deeper knowledge and understanding of the universe and the part of it that humanity inhabits with every passing year. For that, and for so much more that scientists do we should render due recognition and appreciation. But science does not prove the nonexistence of God, just as it cannot prove God’s existence. “Science is a non-theistic, not an anti-theistic, way of engaging reality.” (page 19; emphasis in original) Science instead supports and enhances the sense of wonder and awe that humans experience as we explore and interact with the universe. Alister McGrath shares his awe and wonder with the reader. He also shares how science can come alongside theistic faith to help us come to terms with our place and purpose in the universe.

Throughout this book Alister McGrath engages with the writing of such prominent atheists as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I have not read these authors, so I am relying on Alister McGrath to represent their arguments fairly and not to set up straw men. Similarly, I have not read Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson. I know of it and of Wilson’s arguments only through reading the response written by Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. So I have some reading to do if I am going to be completely thorough in my approach to The Big Question.

With regard to Edward O. Wilson, Alister McGrath mentions him and Sam Harris in his discussion of ethics and morality. Science and specifically evolutionary biology cannot by themselves explain the rise of ethics and moral principles. What is ethical or moral is not simply a matter of what behaviors will enable our species to survive or thrive. Notions of what constitutes ethical behavior transcend the common good and come from humanity’s interaction with a source outside of the physical universe.

When shopping for books online, readers are often able to read samples. The samples often come from the beginning of the book. It might be better in this case if the sample were the final chapter. That would reveal whether or not the butler did it, of course, but this final chapter encapsulates Alister McGrath’s thinking on the relationship between science and faith and it is worth working through the other 200+ pages to get to that summary.

If you are looking for more great reading on the subject of faith and science, why not visit Andy Walsh’s Science Corner blog on the Emerging Scholars Network.

Thanks as always for stopping by!

Pat

Painted Ladies, Hurricanes, Earthquakes

A painted lady (Vanessa cardui) stopped and visited our coneflower (echinacea purpurea) today.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings closed

This butterfly visited as fall was arriving in the northern hemisphere. Like its more well-known cousin the monarch, the painted lady doesn’t stick around for winter. It gets out of winter’s way and heads toward a warmer locale. Some butterflies, such as the mourning cloak, can winter over in the temperate zone. That’s why mourning cloaks are among the first butterflies to be sighted in the spring.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings partly open

Sometimes we can see changes or events coming and we can prepare for them or get out of their way. In the past few weeks millions of people saw storms coming and got out of way or prepared to weather the storms. In spite of their preparations, many people suffered great personal harm from the storms. In Mexico many thousands of people had no way of knowing that earthquakes were coming and also suffered great personal harm.

Painted lady butterfly on purple coneflower
Painted lady, wings open

If you are like me, you do not have the skills to help the survivors rebuild their lives. But we can give, and we can pray. Please do both as you think about creatures who are preparing now for the coming of winter.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Is it Time to Put Hurricanes on a Diet?

We have been following hurricane news for several weeks now. Before it gets pushed out of the headlines by other events and out of our consciousness by cute animal videos or political diatribe, I thought it appropriate to do a little assessment and write out some thoughts.

Have you donated to an organization that is providing relief or recovery services in the stricken areas? If you have, good for you! If you have volunteered or will volunteer for one of those organizations, even better!. Please share your experience in the comments on this blog or on social media.

Next, have you considered the impact that climate change has had on the recent storms? That’s a little trickier to assess. Climate scientists can’t make a precise connection between a warmer climate and the characteristics or behavior of a specific storm. But they do tell us how a warmer climate can affect such storms. A warmer atmosphere, which we have, holds more moisture; storms such as Harvey can carry and deliver more rain. Warmer oceans, which we have, transfer more energy to the storm, which translates into stronger winds. We saw this in Irma.

Hurricane José graphic
Hurricane José running laps in the open ocean, 12 September 2017.

Like so much of the American population, hurricanes seem to be getting bigger. They could stand to lose a few pounds, so to speak. One solution might be to make hurricanes exercise more. As of this writing Hurricane José is running laps in the Bermuda Triangle. Let’s hope he exhausts himself before taking aim at any land mass. Inasmuch as past attempts to control the behavior of storms have failed, it seems unlikely that we will be able to do so in the near future, however.

Some changes in our diets might have a positive effect on climate change. Eating more vegetables, especially beans, instead of feeding vegetables to animals and eating the animals is one such change. If you can’t contemplate giving up meat, or even beef, altogether, may I suggest meatless Mondays or something similar? Oh, and please keep the beans-to-methane comments to yourself. Thanks.

There are limits to using vegetables as a protein source, but fish, eggs, and dairy products can help overcome those limitations while having less climate impact than red meat.

Not sold on beans as a protein source? What about crickets? Eating insects will take more of an adjustment than switching to beans, but when I shared the article on beans on social media some weeks ago, one of my connections enthused about eating barbecued mealworms.

Are you surprised that a small change that individuals can make could have an impact on the environment? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)

Next issue: food waste and climate change.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Pat