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An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
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Sunday, July 06, 2014

All Things, Seen and Unseen

Having read Francis Spufford’s “Unapologetic” and now recently finished Fr. Stephen Freeman’s “Everywhere Present”, I am finding a lot of complimentary aspects. Spufford does both a fantastic and beautiful job of portraying faith as being altogether reasonable, albeit it not in the sense with which a secular materialist would necessarily agree, principally because of how he or she would choose to define reason. And Fr. Stephen opens our eyes to an ancient way of discerning Christianity which suggests that there is more to the world than any understanding of reason alone can comprehend and this rather neuters the whole point of the popular arguments between atheists and theists in which science, and science alone is the canvas upon which they both paint.

Science comes from the latin scientia which means “knowledge” and a simple definition from Webster tells us that science is a “systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” From this already you should at least be sympathetic to Spufford when he writes: “I don’t know if there is [a God]. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins…” You may also note, that much of what comes to us with the full blessing of the pop-culture magisterium of science, is decidedly not coming from tested or even testable “explanations and predictions about the universe.” And no, I’m not talking about the old and worn out “evolution is a theory only” debate – please let us move past that: it doesn’t matter and in my mind is a distraction to the bigger issue, though it does often play a role and I do personally believe (not know) that there is great deal more at work than what we presently think we know (or believe) about the “origin of species.” No, what I’m talking about is less specific and more generalized in the application of science and our human approach to how we perceive the universe. Another way to put it: how do we know what is true? Or better yet, the question posed to our beaten and abused God: “What is truth?”

But before I proceed, I always feel that I need to say upfront that I am a scientist. I do so not as an attempt to tout my credentials, for that would be absurd given that I really don’t have them in the popularly known sense - the letters behind my name are not terribly impressive – but because it may seem to some that I’m on course here to dismiss “science” (or point out that I have not in the past EVER “facebook liked” the “I F*&#ing love science” page – which I will say I will never do because I F*&#ing hate the F-word especially when used in place of a perfectly good English word which actually communicates more than the presence of a poorly rounded education. Further rant: why claim adoration for and assumedly an understanding of an important scholarly discipline while at the same time overtly displaying a level of ignorance of another important scholarly discipline more fitting of an MTV reality star?)…sorry…rant sidetrack. So I should make clear that I am more a scientist by trade, experience, and training than by formal educational. Lacking a PhD, I no less make my living by doing science: attending and giving talks, designing experiments, helping to author peer reviewed papers, wet bench work, managing labs, and helping to design clinical trial studies etc . I have as much appreciation and understanding of science as a carpenter would have for his or her trade and tools. So, I’m not here writing like a carpenter ignorantly suggesting hammers are ridiculous. With what credentials I do have, I feel that I am a little qualified and able to discern when the tools I am quite familiar with are being misused. Imagine, if you will, the horror a finish carpenter would experience watching someone try to pound finish nails through ornately carved molding with a 24oz waffle-stamped ripping hammer! So my point is that science has today grown into far more than a tool or, as the dictionary states: “a systematic enterprise”, but rather it has grown into a worldview, or a “way of life.”

I love my place of employment, and I still recall its old motto being one of the few offered by any organization which I have ever thought decent: “Advancing knowledge; saving lives.” However, some years back they changed it to something altogether different and strange: “A life of science.” It does not bode well for an organizational motto when it raises more questions than it answers! What on earth does it mean? Am I, as an employee, now said to be living a “life of science?” What does that look like? Does that mean that on my trip home I devise and plan experiments I can test at home to try and definitively prove that my wife does in fact love me as she claims? Or maybe all of our lives together are a running experiment and I just need to develop a database to keep track of all the massive and ever accumulating number of data points? And then hope she too isn’t living “a life of science!” Do marriage certificates need to be redesigned to be more like Informed Consents for study participants? Anyway, it’s an absurd motto but it speaks to the very point I’m making: more and more people are looking to science (and it’s misapplication) as the matrix through which we perceive what is “real” and what is “true” about EVERYTHING. 

You have perhaps heard attempts to generate popular interest for science in people (usually kids) whereby the details of respiration will be explained and then say: “So, you see, every time you breathe, science is at work inside you!” What blathering nonsense! Science is not doing ANYTHING to make respiration happen – it just happens! Science is the tool by which we may understand a great many details about respiration, but science itself is not the arbiter, the energy, or the driving force behind anything! Of course this is just a lingual bit of trickery and no science teacher or professor or practitioner would ever suggest, when pressed, that science is a driving force in nature. But, it is often how we speak these days. I’ve seen it contextually in “I F$#@ing Love Science” posts such as times when they will show some picture of a lovely and appealing aspect of nature with one of my favorites being a picture of some really beautiful clouds and then they’ll offer some brief meteorological explanation for the clouds’ existence. But stop and think for a moment as to what is really causing us a sense of awe: the amazing beauty of the sight or the meteorological explanation? So why not just offer the explanation alone and allow THAT to awe us and lead us to cry out obscenities about how much we love science? The reasons are obvious, but the fact remains: Science is not a force that drives those clouds into those formations that we find so appealing, and in no way should we ever reasonably see a wonder in nature and think: Wow, isn’t science cool! So sometimes when I see those posts I think to myself that it is in a way replacing God, because we used to look at nature’s wonders and say : Isn’t God’s creation glorious!” and now instead we say: “I F$#@ing Love Science!” Wonderful. I liken it to reading an absolutely amazing and even life-changing and inspiring piece of literature and afterwards expressing praise for the Latin-based English alphabet as opposed to the well done expression of human experience which transcend ANY language! Sure English is a fine language that allows us to communicate, but it is the content of the communication, the beauty of what happened that is truly meaningful to us human persons, though the words and their particular and creative ordering might communicate it more effectively, there is a beauty that remains which warrants our appreciation in words and language that try desperately and sometimes fruitlessly to communicate some modicum of beauty. 

That aside, “science” is now an authority on par with the very worst of visions one may have of the Church in the middle ages. Do a google search on this term: “What science tells us about…” and you will find no end to the rabbit hole. Science can tell you everything about everything: your personal relationships, your parenting, your fashion preferences, your feelings, and even your religious faith. We see this magisterium of authority at work in nearly every level of our everyday lives: if you want to convince anyone of anything then you need to have “science” readily at hand and ready to back you up with statistics and “facts” – and they needn’t be generated from very good data, so long as it has impressive numbers and looks scientific, very few will question what they perceive to be the nearly sacred operation of science. Sometimes it really does feel like the same power some claim the Church wielded in the Middle Ages over people’s minds - it’s as absurd as dispensing religious dogma upon fancily decorated parchments to ignorant peasants and they lap it up for its apparent authority. Political hacks love to appear to be scientific in their positions and I still recall one glaring example during the healthcare debate in which an article purported to have nailed statistics on EXACTLY how many people have died because they lacked health insurance. It was one of the most absurd “studies” I’d ever read about and not a single conclusion it offered could possibly be supported by ANY available data. Just stop and think about how you could EVER investigate enough to prove that any given individual necessarily died because they lacked insurance? The variables are innumerable and when *I* personally wield the hammer that is science, if I have more than a couple of variables in any suggested study, I am laughed out of the PI’s offices - and that doesn’t even begin to address the funding no one would ever give me for such an ill-designed study. But this particular piece threw caution to the wind, tossed aside the importance of innumerable variables, got funded by who knows who, and regurgitated the desired conclusions from what data they had available. It looked authoritatively scientific and so it made its rounds on Facebook and the media mainly fueled by political opinions that believed these “facts” to begin with and they could now – thanks to science -  not only “believe”, but also “know.” (I was of course accused of dismissing this study for political reasons of my own, but whether that is true or not, I stand by my assertion that the study enlightened nothing and nobody.) The bigger point is that if you want to discern reality, no matter the context, if you intend to do so and be taken with any degree of seriousness then you need to at least pretend that science was done in the process of discerning that reality. And science becomes a stamp of approval…people will believe you if folks with the letters P, h, and D after their names claims they did some study that supports your truth claim.

Health studies, and particularly public health studies, are notorious in my mind: again, too many variables. Since the internet, our “scientific” health fads have begun moving at lightspeed and I was recently subjected to a talk by a PHS student that made me shudder to know that these people are using such data to try and alter public POLICY! But you see, again, science is being done – just very badly, and with a great deal of faith and I think it’s exactly that faith which empowers it. Shooting all too often before really aiming, because after all, everything is a potential target for science.  How else can we know what is real and what is true?

This modern need to have science in your intellectual opinion corner is what drives many Christians to the debating table with the secular materialist atheist, and there they do “scientific” battle amidst the agreed upon context that science, can indeed be used to demystify the mystery of God’s existence. But as both Mr. Spufford and Fr. Freeman have made clear to me in rather different ways: both participants of the debate are urinating in their neighbors’ pools. 

Obviously the materialist is beginning with a simple foundational assumption and belief: the universe is material only and all that is, can be discerned and understood by the application of human science (tools). Now of course, we now know better today than 500 years ago, that much more exists than could be imagined, and the materialist rightly knows that we have developed greater and greater tools to help us see what was once unseen. Therefore the materialist has no qualms in saying that surely much more exists about which we do not yet know. And “yet” is the key word. We will know eventually, he or she will claim, with all the confidence of a bible thumper expecting Jesus’ return. But if what the materialist believes is true about the nature of the universe, from where comes this faith that humans have the capacity for unlimited knowledge? One need only look to our evolutionary brothers and sisters in the animal world around us to note that without fail, all creatures have clear limitations in their comprehension abilities: pond water organisms have no concept of the origins of or the reasoning for the bright light suddenly blinding them as they are being peered at through a microscope by Mrs. Crabapple’s 4th period junior high school biology students. Nor does the cheetah have any notion of living on a sphere. And neither does the whale or chimpanzee comprehend the role of Deoxyribonucleic Acid in their reproduction. Why is it so hard to believe that we human animals also have a ceiling of consciousness or awareness through which we are simply not evolved to get or even see beyond? Having no survival need to do so, we’d never evolve anything to deal with it…whatever it may be. It may not be at all, but considering that all other animals have a limited capacity, and the materialists are so desirous of likening us to them, it seems self-absorbedly absurd on the level of the “earth is the center of the universe” absurd, to think we do not also have limits. Is there perhaps a real construct beyond our own, whereby we are like the pond water organisms trying to comprehend ourselves with utter ignorance to the reality that will perhaps always escape us – something utterly beyond our comprehension? Maybe, but we’ll never “know” because science cannot answer this question because it cannot reach beyond our own limit in the same way as a hammer can only strike with as much force as a human can muster – pneumatically assisted or not.

And of course, the argumentative believer will gaze into the gaps of scientific knowledge and find there evidence of God. And the materialist will desperately seek (perhaps by way of a proton accelerator) something of a decidedly material nature to fill them and thwart the gap filling theist. On and on they will go, arguing and debating hoping that “reason” usually as defined by the materialist will bring the other to enlightenment and to their side.  But it is all a waste of time – I’m convinced. Because we believe, or at least ought to believe, in a God who has told us that the “pure in heart…shall see God” not those running assays. 

And so, meanwhile, all over the world humans sometimes experience something that can only be described as transcendence – it might begin simply as a sense that there MUST be something more that exists, is at work, or is holding all things together. Or it might be something that one interprets to be a direct experience with that “thing.” Frequently it results in something that spills over into our biology. Materialists will hook up electrodes to our brains and try to mimic the sensations associated with such experiences and will tell us simply that we’ve experienced chemicals in the brain not unlike what might be experienced during drug use or other decidedly “natural” things that cause some degree of euphoria which we are stupidly mistaking for something which goes beyond the materialist worldview. Spufford does a fantastic job of linguistically capturing just such an experience, and I simply cannot do it justice, it needs to be taken at full dosage and not this small excerpt to fully appreciate, but here is a taste none-the-less:

It feels as if everything is backed with light, everything floats on a sea of light, everything is just a surface feature of the light. And that includes me. Every tricky thing I am, my sprawling piles of memories and secrets and misunderstandings, float on the sea; are local corrugations and whorls with the limitless light just behind. And now I’ve forgotten to breathe, because the shining something, an infinitesimal distance away out of the universe, is breathing in me and through me, and though the experience is grand beyond my powers to convey, it’s not impersonal. Someone, not something, is here. Though it’s on a scale that defeats imagining and exists without location (or exists in all locations at once) I feel what I feel when there’s someone beside me. I am being looked at. I am being known; known in some wholly accurate and complete way that is only possible when the point of view is not another local self in the world but glows in the whole medium in which I live and move. I am being seen from inside, but without any of my own illusions. I am being seen from behind, beneath, beyond. I am being read by what I am made of.

Spufford continues at length, and I again commend you to read it. I suspect many believers have experienced something similar and I can vividly remember a very similar experience, though more powerful – at least in the sense that it drove from me all notions of atheism to which I had previously been a devout adherent. And as I noted, the materialist will simply say that such experiences are easily explained away by the wonders of brain biochemistry, and that in reality Spufford and I are simply deceiving ourselves into thinking more was happening that was actually happening. But, no one is claiming that the feelings and sensations were not biological in origin but rather that such feelings and sensation don’t typically happen spontaneously without something leading up to them. Spufford puts it this way after affirming the existence of all the chemical explanations that would explain these sensations:

But so what? These are explanations of how my feelings might have arisen, physically, but they don’t explain my feelings away. They don’t prove that my feelings were not really my feelings. They certainly don’t prove that there was nobody there for me to be feeling them about. If God does exist, then from my point of view it’s hard to see how a physical creature like myself could ever register His presence except through some series or other of physically determined bodily states.
Now, laying aside the issue of our dual nature (physical and spiritual) because I do think we Christians tend to set up a false dichotomy between the two and we must keep in mind that we are a unified being and that death is the UNNATURAL separation of body and spirit, there is a really good point being made here. He goes on to describe the feelings one might feel in the context of romantic love. It would be decidedly odd and perhaps insane if one were to develop such “warm fuzzies” spontaneously or over an imagined lover (though it may well be possible, it certainly isn’t “normal”), but the larger point is that by simply offering a biochemical explanation for the feelings you have, it does not explain away the existence of the object of your romantic love! But additionally it must be noted that this itself is NOT an apologetic for God’s existence, it is instead a suggestion that science cannot properly be used to tell me I did NOT have an experience with Him who holds all things together. They will ask if I can prove that these emotions were being caused ultimately by an experience with the Creator and I will say – laughing – of course I cannot. But as Spufford puts it:
I am not in the habit of entertaining only the emotions I can prove. I’d be an unrecognizable oddity if I did. Emotions can certainly be misleading: they can fool you into believing stuff that is definitely, demonstrably untrue. But emotions are also our indispensable tool for navigating, for feeling our way through, the much larger domain of stuff that isn’t susceptible to proof or disproof, that isn’t checkable against the physical universe.

In Fr. Stephen Freeman’s book “Everywhere Present” he describes how many Christians have come to engage their Christianity in a context of a two story universe. Things material are down here, and God, his angels and associated spiritual stuff reside upstairs – and occasionally the upstairs world will invade down here and cause things like miracles to happen. But otherwise, the downstairs world is all perfectly explainable by science and self-existing. Fr. Stephen believes that this context is absolutely foreign to historic Christianity and he believes it evolved as a product of growing secularism and the triumph of science as the new magisterium of authority:

The world may be known according to the laws of physics, but in the modern understanding, there is nothing more to be known about the world than what can be known through physics. There is nothing within, between, or behind the world. There is just the world. It is this very literal character of the modern world that forces modern Christians into a two-storey worldview. If there is nothing within, between, or behind the world, then we must place God and all that we call “spiritual” somewhere outside the world.

Fr. Stephen is suggesting that the modern world is basically ascribing to a form of nominalism (he notes that this was a philosophical belief system which in the Middle Ages was ironically described as “the modern way.”). In essence, nominalism says that the world is nothing more than what it is.  And I would add:  as identified by science. It is nothing more, there is nothing profound or deep, there is no transcendent meaning which doesn’t originate from human imagination which of course is not at all real. It may also be described as “literalism” and one can also see that it played a role in the Protestant Reformation and certainly in the scholastic approach of western theology in general which led to absurdly complex explanations of the sacraments such as the Eucharist. Naturally we had to find complex explanations as to how the bread and wine become Body and Blood while looking like bread and wine – which according to nominalism should be all that they are! Something unheard of, nor indeed needed in the East, where it is was perfectly acceptable for the bread and wine to have “two realities.”(Fr. Stephen quotes St. Irenaios from Against Heresies). But once we have agreed that the materialists are right and everything we believe must be subjugated to the power of the scientific magisterium, we paint ourselves into a difficult corner. No one should know that better than those who’ve taken the literalism and nominalism they’ve been indoctrinated with and applied it to the Scriptures. 

Secular materialists LOVE Christians who adhere to a young earth creationist worldview, because given the presently existing magisterium of science they are able to “shoot fish in a barrel” as it were. Also recognizing the authority of science, the young earth creationists first adopted their point of view (literalism and nominalism) and then desperately seek to use whatever science and reason they can find to poke holes in the surety of the materialists “facts.” And yes, oh how the battle rages! It will rage over the bloodied fields of evolution, historicity of the book of Genesis, angels sleeping with women and producing a race of giants, dinosaurs and humans coexisting, great fish swallowing people, whether there is archeological evidence for the _________(fill in the blank), the reliability of carbon dating, the big bang theory, what a theory is to begin with and whether evolution should be called one, mist before the flood and rain afterwards, etc etc. It’s all very wearisome and both sides bore me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to dodge the subject; rather I’m suggesting both sides are wrong if they are seeking the truth - at least as defined by the traditional Christian perspective - because they think that “truth” can be described simply by what really and literally happened as discerned from a proper scientific evaluation of all available data. 

Christianity does not see truth in this way, and I believe it’s why our beaten and abused God did not answer Pilate’s question. For Christianity has unveiled the Old Testament (2 Cor 3), and it is in Christ that the truth of Old Testament is known. The truth is not that you can count generations backwards and reach an accurate determination for the age of the earth (what nonsense!), but that Christ Himself is the truth revealed in, by, and through those generations. But for the Christian nominalist and literalist, what is most important is that the texts of the Old Testaments MUST be historically true and the fight rages…and in the process the truth is sacrificed at least as we Christians have traditionally seen it. Fr. Stephen writes: 

The meaning of the text has been lost in its “facticity.” What is important about the text is that it is reliable. Its meaning has been collapsed by the historical argument and the secular model of the nature of truth.

When talking to the religious leaders of His time, our Lord said: “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40). In other words, they are profoundly missing the point. Whether every jot and tittle in the Old Testament is absolutely historically and scientifically true is beside the point. The point is Christ.  These stories testify of Him! 

Fr. Stephen furthers his point by referencing our Orthodox Iconography. There is a reason I am not terribly fond of the “western” style of iconography in which the images take on a more photorealistic appearance and they are arguably a condescension to nominalism and literalism. For the importance of an icon is not to show how our Lord or a particular saint might have appeared, but rather to show you truth – which as we’d argue is different from what a news reporter might report with regards to a person or event. It is my opinion that the classical Byzantine style does this far better. Fr. Stephen describes why and then also ties it to Scripture:

The traditional Byzantine form of iconography makes use of inverse perspective, a technique that makes the icon “open out” as we look deeper into it, rather than disappearing at some point of perspective in the background. For the modern eye, this can make the picture appear flat or somehow disproportionate. It is a technique developed by highly skilled artists who were no strangers to the realistic perspective of painting with which we are more familiar. Their technique was an effort to develop an artistic grammar that would have expression in line and color and that would speak in the same manner as Scripture does in word and letter. The resulting iconographic technique gives insight into the character of icons as well as the character of Scripture. The Seventh Council was able to declare that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words” precisely because both speak in an “iconic” manner—or we could say that icons speak in a “Scriptural manner.” They are revelatory of one another—however, literalism is descriptive of neither.

Consider the icon of the Crucifixion: while it contains components of the historical events, it also has numerous aspects that had you been there personally, you would not have seen or been able to document with a camera. Again, it is communicating truth, something that is far bigger than something than can be recorded and put on YouTube. The same is true for the Icon of the Resurrection which in the Eastern tradition does not show Christ coming out of the tomb alive, but rather mystically raising up Adam and Eve from amidst the crashed down gates of Hell – again something a camera could neither capture nor communicate. 

Ultimately, the irony of Pilate’s question is that he was staring Truth in His face, and asking: “What is truth?” For you see there is no assay I can discern that would produce data to answer the question of whether or not God is in fact “everywhere present and fillest all things.” Sometimes I’ve heard people who tend to like to mock the fundamentalist Christian who they think stupidly adheres to his or her ridiculous beliefs against all common magisterium approved scientific sense, but then offer a modicum of respect to the atheist scientist who equally adheres to his or her faith because after all, he or she must have utilized some science to get to that opinion. No they didn’t. They are as arrogant, ignorant and obnoxious as any bible thumper. I believe that it is a sad reality that more and more we are affirming the notion that science has no bounds and no frontiers that it may not colonize. And stranger still, we forget it is a tool and construct of our minds. It does not create, it does not manifest, it does not amaze us. Yes, it can produce tools to reveal the presence of magnificent pictures of faraway worlds and astonishingly magnificent molecular structures, but it brought neither into being. Really, It just takes pictures, which can never fully reveal the truth that causes us to be awestruck. 
...offered by Dn. fdj, a sinner at 4:13 AM [+]

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