Notes and Links from June 6 2012

Youtube on bounded set vs. center set. 

Another youtube telling of the Gospel in Chairs. 

From the New Yorker, Why I love Marilynne Robinson 

This is not the kind of voice I normally associate with religious people, and it makes me wonder whether we might not be listening to the wrong voices. (A resolution: instead of clicking links to stories about the Westboro Baptist Church condemning, say, the Foo Fighters to the eternal flames of perdition, I’ll read a paragraph or two of an essay by Robinson instead.) In her new non-fiction collection, “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” there’s an essay called “Imagination and Community” in which Robinson discusses her conviction that the capacity to make imaginative connections with other people, familiar and foreign, is the basis of community:

 

I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.

 

This is a common enough belief, and it’s one that is frequently expressed by writers of fiction. It’s not an argument I am normally much swayed by, but Robinson’s fiction is an eloquent form of proof. She makes an atheist reader like myself capable of identifying with the sense of a fallen world that is filled with pain and sadness but also suffused with divine grace. Robinson is a Calvinist, but her spiritual sensibility is richly inclusive and non-dogmatic. There’s little talk about sin or damnation in her writing, but a lot about forgiveness and tolerance and kindness. Hers is the sort of Christianity, I suppose, that Christ could probably get behind. I’ll never share her way of seeing and thinking about the world and our place in it, but her writing has shown me the value and beauty of these perspectives.

More Marilynne Robinson: Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred

 We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. 

When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.

Perhaps I should pause here to clarify my meaning, since there are those who feel that the spiritual is diminished or denied when it is associated with the physical. I am not among them. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy? At this point of dynamic convergence, call it self or call it soul, questions of right and wrong are weighed, love is felt, guilt and loss are suffered. And, over time, formation occurs, for weal or woe, governed in large part by that unaccountable capacity for self-awareness.

We live in a time when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it. Of course many of the articles reflect the assumption at the root of many problems, that an account, however tentative, of some structure of the cosmos or some transaction of the nervous system successfully claims that part of reality for secularism. Those who encourage a fear of science are actually saying the same thing. If the old, untenable dualism is put aside, we are instructed in the endless brilliance of creation. Surely to do this is a privilege of modern life for which we should all be grateful.

I think much religious thought has also been intimidated by this supposed discovery, which is odd, since it certainly was not news to Paul, or Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas, or Calvin. All of them quote the pagans with admiration. Perhaps only in Europe was one form of religion ever so dominant that the fact of other forms could constitute any sort of problem. There has been an influential modern tendency to make a sort of slurry of religious narratives, asserting the discovery of universals that don’t actually exist among them. Mircea Eliade is a prominent example. And there is Joseph Campbell. My primary criticism of this kind of scholarship is that it does not bear scrutiny. A secondary criticism I would offer is that it erases all evidence that religion has, anywhere and in any form, expressed or stimulated thought. In any case, the anthropological bias among these writers, which may make it seem free of all parochialism, is in fact absolutely Western, since it regards all religion as human beings acting out their nature and no more than that, though I admit there is a gauziness about this worldview to which I will not attempt to do justice here.

Yet in many instances ancient people seem to have obscured highly available real-world accounts of things. A sculptor would take an oath that the gods had made an idol, after he himself had made it. The gods were credited with walls and ziggurats, when cities themselves built them. Structures of enormous shaped stones went up in broad daylight in ancient cities, the walls built around the Temple by Herod in Roman-occupied Jerusalem being one example. The ancients knew, though we don’t know, how this was done, obviously. But they left no account of it. This very remarkable evasion of the law of gravity was seemingly not of great interest to them. It was the gods themselves who walled in Troy.

Science might note with great care and precision how a new pathology emerged through this wholly unforeseen impact of space on our biosphere, but it could not, scientifically, absorb the fact of it and the origin of it into any larger frame of meaning. Scientists might mention the law of unintended consequences—mention it softly, because that would sound a little flippant in the circumstances. But religion would recognize in it what religion has always known, that there is a mystery in human nature and in human assertions of brilliance and intention, a recoil the Greeks would have called irony and attributed to some angry whim of the gods, to be interpreted as a rebuke of human pride if it could be interpreted at all. Christian theology has spoken of human limitation, fallen-ness, an individually and collectively disastrous bias toward error. I think we all know that the earth might be reaching the end of its tolerance for our presumptions. We all know we might at any time feel the force of unintended consequences, many times compounded. Science has no language to account for the fact that it may well overwhelm itself, and more and more stand helpless before its own effects.

The Virtues of Day Dreaming from the New Yorker

Biologos on Polemic Theology, pt. 1

We are called upon by the Lord to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). That does not necessarily involve being contentious; but it involves avoiding compromise, standing forth for what we believe, standing forth for the truth of God–without welching at any particular moment. 

There are three major questions that we must ask; and I would like to emphasize very strongly that, in my judgment, we need to ask them precisely in the right order:

  1. What do I owe the person who differs from me?
  2. What can I learn from the person who differs from me? Pt. 2
  3. How can I cope with the person who differs from me? Pt. 3
Failure and Rescue and risk. 

In commencement addresses like this, people admonish us: take risks; be willing to fail. But this has always puzzled me. Do you want a surgeon whose motto is “I like taking risks”? We do in fact want people to take risks, to strive for difficult goals even when the possibility of failure looms. Progress cannot happen otherwise. But how they do it is what seems to matter. The key to reducing death after surgery was the introduction of ways to reduce the risk of things going wrong—through specialization, better planning, and technology. They have produced a remarkable transformation in the field. Not that long ago, surgery was so inherently dangerous that you would only consider it as a last resort. Large numbers of patients developed serious infections afterward, bleeding, and other deadly problems we euphemistically called “complications.” Now surgery has become so safe and routine that most is day surgery—you go home right afterward.

But there continue to be huge differences between hospitals in the outcomes of their care. Some places still have far higher death rates than others. And an interesting line of research has opened up asking why.
Researchers at the University of Michigan discovered the answer recently, and it has a twist I didn’t expect. I thought that the best places simply did a better job at controlling and minimizing risks—that they did a better job of preventing things from going wrong. But, to my surprise, they didn’t. Their complication rates after surgery were almost the same as others. Instead, what they proved to be really great at was rescuing people when they had a complication, preventing failures from becoming a catastrophe.

When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all. Say you’re cooking and you inadvertently set a grease pan on fire. Throwing gasoline on the fire would be a completely wrong plan. Trying to blow the fire out would be inadequate. And ignoring it—“Fire? What fire?”—would be no plan at all.

Washington DC’s Gay Mafia: Basically how groups assimilate and work together.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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