Saturday, September 15, 2007

Thoughts and Things – Reviving Liber Naturalis
Posted November 15, 2007

Owen Barfield is remembered today mainly as the friend of C.S. Lewis – who called him ‘the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers.’ Barfield’s own contributions to the understanding of the history of Western thought have not been as widely recognized. A solicitor by profession, Owen Barfield was a sometime member of the ‘Inklings,’ along with others including J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. Lewis, Tolkien and Williams all labored in the vineyard of the Christianized imagination. For Charles Williams, only those who possess imagination can really grip the action in the drama of life. In viewing imagination as a form of ‘Power’ or ‘Realization,’ Williams’ esoteric-occult novels veer into a moral ambiguity which is contained in the exalted tension of his amorous and subtle Christianity. But the idea of ‘justification by imagination’ has forcibly entered our cultural nexus without this Christian tension, where, as a purely secularized theory of art – or even nowadays, of government – it has been destructive.

Barfield’s work in the imagination was of more philosophical kind. As he once put it – “Imagination is not, as some poets have thought, simply synonymous with good.” The truths he quested for in language, philosophy, philology, history, and science were framed in short, dense argumentative books of philosophical meditation. His first, Poetic Diction, published in 1928, was dedicated to Lewis with the motto ‘Opposition is true friendship.’ The two friends argued at length over the role of the imagination, which Barfield believed could lead to truth, but Lewis said should be viewed as a way of meaning.

Barfield’s preoccupations with the imagination arose out of his experience with poetry which, he says, can lead to ‘a felt change of consciousness’ and to ‘the making of meaning which makes true knowledge possible.’ The most detailed part of Poetic Diction comprises the historical study of the uses of particular words by particular poets. “Today,” he remarks, “a man cannot utter a dozen words without wielding the creations of a hundred named and nameless poets.” The emphasis on historical study attracted the attention of the historian John Lukacs, who called Barfield “the most important philosopher of the 20th century” and whose concept of historical consciousness is consonant with Barfield’s historical-evolutionary perspective.

Barfield’s most important book is Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, which appeared in the US in 1965. Whereas previously he had before devoted his attention to the historical study of language and of poetry, in Saving the Appearances he argues on the basis of the historical study of science. But once again he was met the fate of being overshadowed, this time because of Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which had taken the intellectual world by storm in 1962. This book made an important contribution to the historical study of science by addressing the role of the larger community in fostering or providing hospitality to certain ideas. Unfortunately it was adopted by people who wanted to dethrone the idea of the objectivity of standards of truth. Adherents of cultural studies and social constructivism used this first shoot of the participatory idea as a battering-ram against science and scholarship. As James Franklin put it in the New Criterion (2000) “… the worst effect of Kuhn … has been the frivolous discarding of the way things are as a constraint on the theory about the way things are.”

I doubt there are many thinkers in the history of this world whose followers have all been beyond reproach. There are an infinite number of ways in which ideas may be misused. Liberals err when they downgrade standards in favor of participation, and conservatives likewise err when they exalt objectivity in order to deride participation. In such a situation one is apt to echo the biblical saying – the very stones cry out! What can reconcile objectivity and participation? Has anyone tried? If so, who? And how is it to be done? And why is it important?

The term ‘saving the appearances’ has its historical genesis in astronomy. The ‘appearances’ of classical astronomy accounted for the celestial movements; the question of whether these theories or conjectures were literally true was not so much at issue. This question had to wait for the Scientific Revolution – indeed it was that revolution, and much of Barfield’s exposition is devoted to the explication of the mental background both before and after this salient “transposition of the mind.”

Saving the Appearances examines the development of science primarily as the story of man’s changing relationship to Nature, especially with respect to man’s awareness of participation. Which is to say, Barfield is an evolutionist but not a Darwinian, and his view of evolution is closer to what some might call “religion,” although it is very far in certain respects from what most people think about when they think about religion. Barfield’s evolutionary change-agent is the Logos, which has an “objective” side (the phenomena) and an interior or subjective one (consciousness) with both sides correlative one to the other.

Science emphasizes the fact that the world it investigates – the atomic physical structure of matter – is not the same as the familiar world we are accustomed to. In fact this investigated world is radically other. “It depends upon what ‘is’ is,” said our former President Clinton, in one epigrammatic mouthful summarizing the gulf that has widened between the received world and the investigated world. This widening gulf has brought the whole area of predication into question—of saying that something ‘is.’ For if the real world is only energy or matter in motion, all that appears in the received or commonly experienced world is chance, happenstance, disconnected spectacle or the result of force. It doesn’t have any necessary logic to it. It’s not inherent to the circumstances nor necessary to the outcome. Nothing participates in anything else; nothing participates in Being. Thus to make the statement, “A horse is an animal,” is suspect. For how can a horse participate in animal-hood, indeed what is animal-hood but a mental construction or imposition of ours?

On the other hand, modern philosophy since Kant has attempted to come to the rescue of the realness of the world by stressing the participation of human beings in the creation, or rather evocation, of the phenomena. It is a way of saying that what we think is there is not really there, but we can do nothing otherwise than suppose it to be there. It’s a big supposition, and our cultural heritage was not built upon so fragile a basis. Nor may it be able to persist with such meager provender for long. As Barfield once observed, “In the long run, we shall not be able to save souls without saving the appearances, and it is an error fraught with the most terrible consequences to imagine that we shall.”

Barfield states that his purpose in writing Saving the Appearances was to draw attention to the consequences arising from “the hastily expanded sciences” of the 19th and 20th centuries. The more we go back into the past, the more human utterance and testimony about the world has a mythological character. We believe that the received world is not real; our ancestors believed in the super-reality of the received. Nevertheless, it is obvious with our ancestors no less than with us that people everywhere engage with and participate in transforming sensations into ‘things,’ and this transforming activity is taught, imitated, and passed on through language and culture in a multitude of ways, whether as mythology, storytelling, science, or philosophy, etc.

This is the participatory premise, and it is basically the common sense theory of perception. But it raises problems. There are several options for an honest dealing with these problems – the multitude of way for dishonest dealing with it we will not explore at the moment. Let us review some of these options:

(1) We can acknowledge that the relation between man and nature has undergone vast changes, and that what ancient people testified about the world was indeed true, not just of their perception and thought, but what they perceived and thought about, that is, of the world itself. Therefore, what they say in regards to the creation of the world by God and the actions of angels and spiritual beings in the world, etc., should be seriously taken into account. In order to gain a true picture of the world, the modern picture of evolution would have to be counterbalanced by the testimony of the ancients regarding Creation. That is to say, we would have to take not only their words but also their phenomena into account when embarking on any description of the world prior to the entrance on the scene of ‘our’ phenomena, that is, circa the 1600’s. This is the fullest accounting, and it would demand a radical revisioning of our view of human history and of almost all of our ordinary opinions.

(2) We can deny that there has been any change in the relation of man and world, or consciousness and phenomena, and that things have always been more or less what they are today. It follows, therefore, that our way of viewing things is the only right way. However, denial at this highly conscious level (it happens all the time subconsciously and dishonestly) would be pretty strenuous, since it would involve throwing out almost our entire culture heritage, or at least certainly any deeper relation to it or participation in it (e.g. religious worship.) This is the de facto position taken by Richard Dawkins and others popularizers of atheism. This strategy basically says that our ancestors were crazy. Thus Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, who wrote that “the gods were amalgams of admonitory experiences, made of meldings of whatever commands had been given to the individual.” In other words, the ancients were possessed – insane!

(3) Maybe it is we ourselves – post-Scientific Revolution, post-Cartesian men – who are crazy. (And which of us has never had this thought?) But this is also difficult, for it would involve dispensing with the real gains of modern science. No many people would volunteer for this option, and it has never really been an option in the Modern Age.

(4) If we acknowledge the reality of our phenomena, and deny that either we or our ancestors are insane, how did our perceptions arise? Did they evolve out of the perceptions of earlier human beings or were they just invented? This whole area of differing cultural perceptions and value judgments (or not) has become a huge area of contemporary discourse, and it certainly relates to the issues in the evolution of consciousness pioneered by Barfield.

Thus we find questions and riddles at whatever end we try to grab the stick, and somehow we get the feeling that the stick is shaking us—and that we are in its grip, not the reverse.

Modern physics tells us that the normal, familiar world that we take for granted is comprised of atoms, particles, waves, or just ‘energy.’ To be sure, even these words are cumbersome; they are just ways we have of trying to picture something that cannot be pictured. They comprise the ‘unrepresented’ background of our perceptions. But, if this ‘unrepresented’ background is all that is believed to exist independently of our perceptions, what is the foreground, what is the ‘represented’ or the ‘appearances’ of the world? Trees, houses, cars, faces of people, the singing of birds, this paper – in other words, the received or familiar world. If the phenomena of the world are ‘energetic’ in essence, but this essence is nonpicturable and nonrepresentational, then the world we picture, live in, talk about is, in fact, what he calls “a system of collective representations.” These ‘collective representations’ are the result of our activity, however far back in the past the process may have gotten started and however long the time involved in the transmission of learning about these things is that we call society or culture.

Barfield uses the term figuration to mean the activity that converts sensations into things, that is, as the work of the percipient mind in constructing the world of recognizable and nameable objects, the ‘familiar world.’ It should be said at the outset that Barfield is not going with this where the post-modernists have been going with it – e.g. that “The world is a huge collection of communally-evolved customs of interpretation” (Don Cupitt) or like President Clinton’s statement about the ‘is,’ quoted earlier. Such views are symptomatic of the fact that, for people today, the first glimmerings of participation are apt to be accompanied by confused thinking. Indeed, Barfield comments, “It is characteristic of our phenomena… that our participation in them, and therefore their representational nature, is excluded from our immediate awareness.”
When we gain the first dawning awareness of participation, we are apt to forget our long learning and mutual living with them. It was through the labor of being – our own, and theirs. Our own awareness of them is the testament to their real existence, as their existence is the testament of ours. The world is more than communally-evolved customs because we are dependent upon it for our very being. It is easy to forget the water of life when you are not thirsty. Forgetfulness slides over into habits, habits into taking for granted, taking for granted into not noticing how perceptions and thoughts arise, and sooner or later you end up with real epistemological consequences.

Some years ago I stumbled across a quote which perfectly expresses the alienated character of our appearances, and of how much has been forgotten of the “labor of being.” From Memory’s Ghost by Philip J. Hilts, the passage is a quote from the psychologist Robert Ornstein:

"...There is no color in nature, no sounds, no tastes. It is a
cold, quiet, colorless affair outside us…It is we who transform molecules… these
things are dimensions of human experience, not dimensions of the world
outside…We don’t actually experience the outside world—we grab at only a very
refined portion of it, a portion selected for the purposes of

To preface this remarkable passage with the words “There is…” for the purpose of declaring a magisterial “There is not…” to everything we experience in the world is certainly an act of philosophic contortionism. It does not follow that because I am aware that the human contribution to that trilling sound I hear tells me bird — which by the way is only a way of saying this is its name — that this ‘bird’ is merely a “dimension of human experience.” This is a picture of joyless and unbridgeable subjectivism. It is further remarkable for a psychologist to have written it. Apparently he accepts the existence of a self without argument while omitting to mention that learning the names of things and experiencing them is how we acquire a self in the first place.

It is probably true that we do not pay attention to our figuration, which most of the time has receded into mere habit. And for that matter even a molecule is the result of an historical development, and is therefore ‘participated’ to some extent, so that calling a bird a molecule just postpones the reckoning with participation and only adds a whole new layer of obfuscation. But this is a very silly example of the tricks that are resorted to in the name of a science that has not decided whether its mission is to eliminate participation or to understand the natural world. That we have reached such a point of absurdity is in large part the purpose of Saving the Appearances to show and, if possible, begin to disentangle.

Barfield emphasizes that the major difference between our phenomena and those of our forebears was that primitive or ancient man was aware of participation, whereas we are not aware of it – or at least, if we are aware of it we tend to disown it – just as in the example above. It is characteristic of our phenomena that they are seen as being wholly independent of us, wholly extrinsic – “clothed with the independence and extrinsicality of the unrepresented itself. But a representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate—ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.”

These are strong words, but they are not too strong when you recollect the nature of the modern landscape that we have created in America and are in the process of creating all over the world. Especially is this the case over the suburbanized landscape which more and more resembles a hideous excrescence of disjoint parts strung out into an extensionless void. If we do not cultivate the sustainable quality of care in our thinking, how can we expect to see it in our buildings and landscapes? The degradation of the modern landscape is the witness of the degraded quality of our inner lives and the alienated and ‘extrinsic’ character of our appearances.

Darwinistic evolutionary science arose in the 19th century, when the older medieval participatory consciousness had faded. It took for granted the purely extrinsic nature of the appearances and then attempted to treat these appearances much as astronomy treated the celestial objects, thus giving birth to a mechanistic picture of evolution. Barfield remarks that had such a science developed earlier, or even perhaps later, after 20th century physics did much to undermine materialism, we might have had a science of evolution worthy of the name –”man might have read there the story of his coming into being… of his world and his own consciousness.”

Participation is whatever in perception that is more than just sensation — ‘the extra-sensory link between man and the phenomena.’ The participatory element is supplied by our thinking and figuration and whatever elements of cultural and individual memory, language, imagination and symbolical faculty comprise our passage through the world. Many errors and much silliness might be avoided if we were to consider thinking in relation to some other of these elements, particularly two of its close etymological relatives: thanking and ‘thinging.’ Thanking, thinking, and ‘thinging’ (the making of ‘things, i.e., what Barfield calls figuration) derive from a common root. Let us look at each of these:

Under THANKS we have religion, the concept and action of grace. The heritage of thanking, gratitude, appreciation, the saying of grace, the murmur of prayer, form the foundations of the soul and build the act of thinking, and indeed, make it even possible. Before there is thinking there is a catechism, and a catechism is the art of building a structure for the soul so as to enable an opening. Thanking presupposes a structure; one has to learn how to become open. For no one can think who does open himself, and the paradigm of the opening is the communion made possible between God and man through religion. This is the sacred heritage of humanity, and precedes the appearance of individualized, and later abstract thought by many generations – by thousands of years, in fact.

It may be asked, and many are asking now, whether religion is still needed today. Who has need of a paradigm of opening when the modern world, its science, its art, its media, is so obviously self-sufficient, so obviously advanced in technique, so brilliant in its aspirations and achievements, and there is so much money to be made? Maybe a paradigm of opening would be a retarding force… religion as opiate of the masses, the consolation of weak intellects, the sleeping-pill of the feel-goods and the do-goods and the pretend-to-be-goods. Criticism of religion is often made and is sometimes justified, but on the other hand secular modernity has not reached the end of its lease, and there are peculiar signs of historical stagnation, of spiritual barrenness or intellectual decadence, behind all the glitter of our civilization. So perhaps the paradigm of the opening is not so antiquated after all. It may perhaps be related to a mysterious faculty for creativity in history.

Under THINKING there is no need to repeat the history of philosophy, poetry, and culture. Everyone has his or her own story, his or her own way of connecting to it, adding on to it, or escaping from it. But it cannot be an abstract story, not if it is to have any life in it, and that life is the THINGING, the realm of the phenomena, the ‘things’ that we say that are. Our thinking, ultimately and eventually, becomes thinging – the circumstances, the look and feel of things, the history. Yet we do not really perceive the entire picture, because it happens over a long period of time. Our thinking is a sort of vacuuming — roaring around the world re-ordering, classifying, using, calculating, strategizing, building, conquering… Maybe our thinking is actually this noise, and we are not really very much aware of the THANKS feeding it or the THINGS issuing from it – or of the ‘thanks’ and the ‘things’ feeding and issuing from past and previous interchanges with thinking over a long period of history, with which we are also in a perpetual exchange.

So from the hysterical rants of the modern atheists to the unreal mathematized abstractions of economists and cosmologists, our modern cognition has become the counter-image of ancient participation. Whereas the ancient gesture was the opening, the modern gesture is the clenched fist, the frown, the circumscribed problem – carefully defined, carefully delineated so that extraneous considerations need not apply. It lacks grace but makes up in accuracy. Only there is something wrong with the way this equation is stated, for grace and accuracy belong to the world equally – the true living world, the human world, the given world of mankind and living nature as well as to the divine world.

So that perhaps the phrase “a gain in accuracy” is not quite the right formulation. But there has been an increase of individual self-consciousness, as well as of social power and control, that has come about through the gradual usurpation of Logos and its degradation into mere “intellectualism.” To the extent that this development in time of self-consciousness – which Barfield terms the “evolution of consciousness” — is to the good, it has supported attainment of greater freedom, more independence and self-knowledge. Everything has its place, purpose and power. But the other hand, where this decline of Logos to intellect and depletion of participation to selfhood has issued into a glorification of power for its own sake, then there is something that may be judged, there is something that must be warned against. It can be called an occult transgression, or wrong use of a natural development. It steals from Nature unlawfully – it steals and it does not sustain or restore or reintegrate. This stealing or “theft of Logos” is the great sinful secret of the Modern Age, and lies at the root of almost all its manifestations. As, for example, Simone Weil once put it, the idea of the dignity of labor is the only idea we have not borrowed from the ancient Greeks. But it is from such an idea that we can begin again to construct a notion of the labor of being and of a new form of participation.

But in the meantime, it is only the sheer weight of the so-called masses that provides the countervailing force against the giddy spin of this occult transgression of the mental elites. Whether the masses will in time gain the ability to think, and I mean along the lines that I am suggesting – thinking accompanied with thanking and ‘thinging’ — a new whole and fully participated thinking – on that the future of the world depends.

And this kind of thinking is a participated thinking, concerning which Barfield remarks: “The plain fact is, that all the unity and coherence of nature depends on participation of one kind or another. If therefore man succeeds in eliminating all original participation, without substituting any other, he will have done nothing less than to eliminate all meaning and coherence from the cosmos.” So it is quite right to speak of the world’s future in the context of the development of human thought. Knowledge of this correlation of consciousness and phenomena, the mutual coexistence of thoughts and things, is an urgently needed course-correction for today. We urgently need a new “saving the appearances” – not for the heavens but for the earth.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Who Do You Trust?

Illustration: from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey

"To realize or be aware of something without counting on it is the most characteristic form of an idea; to count on something without realizing it, is the most characteristic form of a belief." Ortega y Gasset, Historical Reason (p. 21).

"Human reason left to its own resources is completely incapable not only of creating but also of conserving any religious or political association, because it can only give rise to disputes and because, to conduct himself well, man needs beliefs, not problems." Joseph de Maistre, Study on Sovereignty

"... the production of belief is the sole function of thought." Charles Sanders Pierce, from "How To Make Our Ideas Clear."

It is a truism that our perceptions are influenced, or even in some sense conditioned, by our beliefs. According to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey press release, the picture shows galaxies lying near the plane of the Earth's equator in a 2-billion lightyears deep 3D map. Somehow evidence and measurement "bolster" the case for Dark Energy and Dark Matter - the heading of the press release. By combining these measurements with those from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), the SDSS team "measured the cosmic matter to consist of 70 percent dark energy, 25 percent dark matter and five percent ordinary matter." These findings appear to confirm the leading cosmological model, that is, a "rapid expansion of space known as inflation that stretched microscopic quantum fluctuations in the fiery aftermath of the Big Bang to enormous scales. After inflation ended, gravity caused these seed fluctuations to grow into the galaxies and the galaxy clustering patterns observed in the SDSS."

Dark Energy and Dark Matter are hypothesized to exist (their existence has never been proved) because of the complicated mathematical formulations of Relativity and Big Bang theories. That is to say, the theories dictate the existence of entities which are thus, in this sense, purely faith-based. Perhaps modern cosmology is a good illustration of Pierce's formulation, that the sole function of thought is to produce belief. I doubt that this is the way that scientists like to think of themselves. Also one has to ask, which comes first, the cart or the horse? Does the belief give rise to a system of thought, or does the system of thought give rise to the belief? Where, in this game of tag, is the "objective referent," i.e., reality itself, or as the positivists like to say, the "empirical verification"?

My attention was drawn to this particular illustration of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey through Robert Sungenis magisterial work on geocentrism, which pretty much says that modern cosmology is the emperor with no clothes. Make that a ditto for Copernicanism, Einsteinism and Big Bangism too. It's all a cart with no horse, because the uncomfortable fact is, the motion of the earth has never been proved, and even the very tenets of Relativity state that there is a functional equivalence between a stationary sun with rotating earth and a stationary earth with a rotating sun.

According to Sungenis, "The pictorial provided by SDSS shows Earth in the center of two wedge-shaped galaxy segments that also show galaxy density decreases as the distance from Earth increases. Only from the vantage point of Earth do these stunning proportions become significant. In other words, if one were to view them from another part of the universe the concentric proportions would not appear. The centrality of Earth provided by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey is thus consistent with the quantization of redshift values that have been accumulated for four decades prior. Once again, the 'Copernican Principle' is violated. The evidence shows that Earth is the hub of the universe." (Galileo Was Wrong, p. 191)

The Copernican Principle, also sometimes called the Principle of Mediocrity, states that there is no center in the universe, and that no position is 'privileged,' to use the postmodern jargon. Quantized redshifts refer to the discovery that the redshift of various galaxies are all distributed at specific periodic or specific distances from the Earth (multiples of 72 km/sec and smaller ones at 36 km/sec). The magazine Sky and Telescope wrote, "Quantized redshifts just don't fit into this view of the cosmos [i.e. the Big Bang], for they imply concentric shells of galaxies expanding away from a central point, Earth."

Ultimately, our age will have much to answer for in the realm of beliefs. In my novel, After the Crash (available through the self-publishing venue, I take up this question in the context of a whimsical tour of the world after the virtual disappearance of petroleum. In the chapter, "Belief Systems Seminars," I write:

"In the early days of the Crash, when there was still electricity, though intermittent, Belief System Seminars were all the rage.

"Belief System Seminars were fantasy-renewing social engagements and exercises. Someone in a Seminar would begin by saying, 'I can't believe this is happening,' and then four or five people would chime in, adding their four or five alternate lack-of-belief narratives to the original one. By the end of the day... you would have heard twelve or fifteen people recount their
lack of belief stories in excruciating detail.

"By the time the Crash had ceased to be an event separable and distinguishable from what was happening in general -- when living without oil, gas, much electricity or abundance of food and water had become the fact of the day, most people found that they had no further use for their lack of belief... At least the people who were sharing their lacks of belief, or lack of beliefs, were engaging in a kind of collective mourning, a group consolation exercise for the past age. In that light, even lack of belief had a certain currency. It was backed up by the good faith and credit of belief itself, the idea or ideal of believability. . . In any case, the collapse of the hydrocarbon cognitive habits combined with the destruction of belief was the double blow that caused so many people to wander in the suburbs of insanity. The era was booming with psychic breakdown. Millions capitulated under the accumulated woes of low food, having to walk everywhere, not believing in what was happening before their eyes, and having to rely on their own powers of perception and reason instead of television. . . "

The repertory of beliefs in our age is a very long asphyxiating list: Progress. Democracy. The Press. The Free Market. Globalization. Efficiency. Technology. Multiculturalism. Equality. The Vote. The Market. The Economy. Freedom. Autonomy. Secularism. Evolution. Genes (either Selfish or Altruistic). Add to this the idols of science, which Simone Weil already noted half a century ago, was beginning to acquire the worst features of religion - dogma and mystique. One begins to long for the day when the salvation of your soul depended on a central belief enunciated with the clarity of a beam of light -
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen. we believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

... and left the rest of the world and the soul aglow in freedom - for by means of the light, everything else was open.


I am travelling to Oregon for a few days and will not post again probably for a couple of weeks. Thanks again to my readers who have written of their appreciation for this blog.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

God: The Improbable

Drawing: by Paul C. Johnston, circa 1955
[Correction 9/15/07: The drawing was made by Eleanor a.k.a. London Bridges, Paul's art teacher at the time.]

"It is perhaps true in a sense that God is a God of beginnings; the ends are up to us, and to work in the fruitfulness of God is to be renewed in the promise of the beginning." From a journal entry, April 24, 2005

I was browsing in an old journal and came across the above. It occurred to me that only a "modern" would write that "... the ends are up to us." Most historic societies have had or continue to have a concept of Providence, which would translate into the concept that "the ends are up to God." Nevertheless, with some reservations, I endorse the modern idea, at least in the context of its sentence.

The real bugaboo for the "modern" is the concept of the "Beginning." Almost all of our science, and certainly our common life, is ruled by a notion of a beginningless - and therefore a godless - universe. I don't consider the "Big Bang" an adequate substitute for the concept of a beginning, which must always include the notion of a definite starting point, a structure of some kind. The notion of the "Big Bang" has too much of the merely random for my taste - as e.g. astrophysicist Alan Guth once put it, a universe is just something that happens from time to time. But even modern science uncovers almost daily new strange facts of all the things that "had to happen" and just in the right amount (and to the tenth or twentieth decimal place) and in the right sequence, for this world to have come into being at all. This precision of event and sequence presents a strange contrast to the nebulous concept of how it all happened in the first place. We live in a strange world, where large and incoherent ideas about origins and metaphysics trip over facts of stringent limits and precision.

On my walk to work the other day, I had the idea for a book someone should write on the "Improbable God." There would be a science section - full of the just-barely "coincidences" that had to happen. In a way this part might be the easiest to write. At least there would be an abundance of material. And there would be a theology section, which also might not be too difficult to write, in the sense that there is much material accumulated over two millenia, so that there would be no shortage of sources and ideas. The improbabilities of Catholic theology, say, would present a living complement to the improbabilities of science, but instead of powers to the 20th decimal place we are examining levels of reality. The particular difficulty is that for the most part we have no very exact notion of other "levels of reality." Even our science on this point is confused - it claims to tell us the truth about the world, but on the other hand it deals with entities inaccessible to ordinary consciousness, hence it has culminated with a new mystique.

The aim of theological improbability would be to restore the world to us - that is, restore the act of knowledge as the encounter of the mind with things. Oddly enough, theological improbability culminates with something very much like "common sense," though perhaps that is an odd way of putting it. It is common sense to acknowledge that this world is very improbable. Theological improbability aims at the restoration of "common sense" - which, we should remember, is already a concept which is not as easy and innocent as it appears. It is bristling with philosophical history. "The history of this one single expression contains in miniature the entire history of the western world," writes Peter Kingsley, in his book Reality - an exploration of the pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles. We assume, rather than in fact know, that human beings always possessed the capacity to coordinate their senses - to see, hear, taste, touch and smell at the same time. Did they? Perhaps they had to undergo a coordination through exercise - through meditation. Peter Kingsley thinks so- "for Empedocles, the training in how to perceive oneself perceiving was provided as part of an esoteric transmission from teacher to disciple." He believes that the teaching of the awareness of being aware was degraded as it took the journey through philosophy. "Reason" pre-empted the activity of watching the perceptive process itself. Hence, being "aware" became something we already have rather than something we have to achieve.

So from theological improbability we take a leap into history - perhaps the hardest part of the book to write. History has the odd combination of being both obvious and improbable. Because it is our medium, because we are immersed in it, we cannot see it - yet when we begin to "see" it we begin to perceive how improbable it is. Much more would need to be written about this, or more accurately, thought. But in essence the improbability which is this universe, world, life and history is at odds with the smooth, dull hum of Evolutionism which has so enthralled the modern mind.

In the tangle of improbabilities which is everything, an improbable God "makes sense" in a new way. Perhaps improbability is a new way to talk about grace. For in the theology of St. Thomas, grace presupposes nature. But in the new schema of understanding, we can also come to perceive that nature presupposes improbability - and this is grace.