Maybe the World Is Getting Better and Better

After reading Ian Drake’s review over at the Anamnesis Journal, I’ve been busy with Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It’s the sort of book that I reflexively smirk at, and sometimes it’s good to take a walk on the wild side and read a contrary  opinion. For me that was certainly true of Pinker’s book. It falls into the general category of a Whig History. Pinker is making the case that since the rise of Liberal Democracies (a process that began 400 to 500 years ago) violence due to war, terrorism, slavery, etc. has been decreasing. He argues that we are living in what might be called a “Liberal Peace” (a term harkening back to the Roman Peace or Pax Romana) that  is a result of the rise of Liberal Democracies, international trade that has brought the whole word together into an integrated economic whole, and sensibilities opposed to violence growing out the Enlightenment.

I am shocked that I am largely convinced by his arguments. Any casual reader of my blog over these many years knows that I am (and continue to be) a harsh critic of the Enlightenment. After reading at Pinker’s book I believe I have to modify that position a bit. Church historians make the claim that the single most important external factor allowing for the amazing growth of the early church was the Pax Romana which allowed freedom of movement and relative safety for the infant church. This does not change the fact that the Roman Empire was a brutal, pagan regime that offered little good, other than relative peace and safety. Similarly what Pinker calls the “Liberal Peace” has offered the church unprecedented freedom and safety (with notable exceptions) for a very long period of time that has allowed it flourish in every corner of the world.

That being said, Pinker is crippled by the very Whig Liberalism that he champions in this book. He tends to equate order with the good society. While society has certainly grown more orderly, more polite, and is now more horrified by violence and blood, that is not the same thing as saying we have become better. The gains growing out of the Enlightenment (and there are many) have come with certain losses as well. We have lost much of sense of any external order (divine order) that defines goodness and rightness. We have become much softer. (His story about the modern German army is very telling.) Becoming genuinely better human beings is extremely hard work, whether one is talking about Christian discipleship or something more akin to Stoic self-betterment. I suspect both are increasingly falling out of reach as we eschew any sort of violence that might toughen us up.

I can’t recommend the book without certain caveats. He dwells on the details of violence in a manner that I find creepy. I’m sure he would say that it is necessary to make his point. It is certainly not a book that will uplift you in any manner, other than possibly give you a different perspective on the world we live in now.

He also has a deep antipathy toward Christianity. The version he rails against is a certain variety of medieval literalism that is largely non-existent now. His inability to grasp even the most basic nuances of religion in general and Christianity in particular made me think I was reading some flame war on the internet rather than a book that was actually trying to be academic. It is too bad, for in many ways it ruins the book for consideration as a serious academic resource. The shame is once he gets the bile of his own bigotry out of his system, he actually has something worth listening to.

But one should not be surprised by such a thing flowing out of the academy. For those ready to overlook Pinker’s misrepresentation of Christianity, I recommend it as a helpful resource.

St Thomas, Meet the Large Hadron Collider

Thomas Aquinas, in describing what would eventually become the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, said, “The body of Christ is here [in the Sacrament] as if it were just substance, that is, in the way that substance is under its dimensions, and not in any dimensive way” (Summa Theologica, 3:76:3 – Blackfriars Ed.). That’s an odd sentence. What he’s saying is that Christ’s body and blood are really, actually, and substantially in the host, but they have no dimensions, so no matter how hard you try, you’ll never actually find pieces of body or blood because they’re dimensionless.When I learned about this in seminary I found the idea of something being actually there, but without dimensions, to be absurd. I dismissed it as a bit of Medieval sophistry.

I am currently re-reading George Hunsinger’s book, The Eucharist and Ecumenism and ran across the Aquinas quote again (on p. 24). A couple of days ago I completed Lisa Randall’s slim volume, The Higgs Discovery. In that book I learned that the Higgs Field is material, but it is dimensionless, so it is not directly observable. The existence of the Higgs Field can only be noted when some particle interacts with it and a Higgs particle, with actual mass and dimensions, pops into existence for a few moments until it decays and the particle’s energy is absorbed back into the Higgs Field.

When Lisa Randall explained it, the possibility of dimensionless material that is spread throughout space made quite a bit of sense. Today, I see Thomas’ definition once again and realize that it’s no more absurd than Lisa Randall and all the fine scientists at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider studying the Higgs Field.

So who knows, maybe Thomas Aquinas was on to something. Or maybe Lisa Randall is a closet Thomist. Or maybe the whole lot of us are simply barking mad. (But I jest.)

Actually, now that I reread Thomas, I find his concept of dimensionless but substantial presence to not be any more wonderfully weird than modern particle physics. I just needed someone with a world view and language set that is more familiar to me than the 12th century European setting of Thomas to explain how something as strange as dimensionless matter (or dimensionless substance) actually makes sense.

And for that I’m thankful.

The Co-opting of Thanksgiving

American Thanksgiving (celebrated this coming Thursday, Nov 26) is a civil holiday with vaguely religious roots. Over the decades churches have co-opted it and turned it into a major holy day (for Evangelicals, at least). Now, when Americans treat it like the civil holiday that it actually is, some Christians sputter and get offended as if they actually own the day because they co-opted it.

A similar thing happened to the ancient pagan solstice festival. Christians co-opted it and associated it with the birth of Christ (which was likely in August and almost certainly not in December). Recently Wicca and other earth religions have been trying to take back their own festival, but with very little success.

It’s what Christians do. They take the stuff of nature and culture around them and see Christ in it. (“By him all things consist” Col 1:17). Sometimes those events turn into feasts and fasts. It’s a remarkable process of seeing the “natural” world through the eyes of faith.

The Rohingya and Syria

I read the article because of the title. “Rohingya see glimmer of hope in Suu Kyi’s election victory.” I never heard of Rohingya and was curious why his name popped up in my news feed. Turns out that it was not a person. The Rohingya are a minority group in Myanmar. The article came from The Arab News, a paper I hardly ever read (and only when I click on a headline in my news feed that seems interesting). The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar long enough that their origins are in question (probably from the Bengal region). What is for certain is they are not Burmese and are not an officially recognized ethnic group. Because they are mostly Muslim, the majority Bengali population does not like them.

Today they are considered by groups that pay attention to this stuff to be one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Many now live in refugee camps that are reportedly better described as prisons. They have high hopes that Suu Kyi’s NLD party, that just won the national election in a landslide, will deal with their perilous situation.

I am quite frankly worried about all the anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian rhetoric that has become so chic in the U.S. There are even those that want to put Syrian refugees into internment camps. Granted, there is a certain risk in allowing any stranger to live next door. But I think we might do well to pause and try to learn a lesson from the Myanmar debacle. It would be far more dangerous in the long run to dehumanize hundreds of thousands of legitimate refugees and other immigrants from Syria. If we were to do that, we would have a decades-long disaster on our hands similar to Myanmar and the Rohingya. (France’s historic tendency to ghettoize immigrants, and especially Algerians, and the result of that policy is both tragic and instructive in this case.)

And, aside from the policy debate, I am horrified that we, as a society, are so quick to relegate a whole nation to this not-quite-human status. Given the rhetoric, it might be best if we dismantle and melt down the Statue of Liberty. The metal could be use to build fences to imprison the nation of Syria

Talking Philosophy: War and Peace

A timely conversation from the Ideas program on CBC radio. Three philosophers talk about war and whether there is such a thing as a just or moral war in the modern world. It was broadcast on Nov. 12, a couple of days before the Paris attacks and shortly after the Beirut bombings. (It was recorded before both took place.) It ends up being a discussion of some of the very issues at stake for France. the Levant, and the world, but with the passion of the moment stripped away. It can be found at

An Example of the Failure of Literalism

I recently listened to G. Sungaila present a paper at the 3rd International Scientific Conference of the Lithuanian Society for the Study of Religions, entitled, “The Influence of Gnosticism on the Images of Afterlife in Eastern Christianity.” (The presentation was recorded on Oct 23, 2015 and can be found on YouTube.) The title is a bit misleading because it is essentially a critique of Seraphim Rose’s doctrine of the afterlife.

[Rose is a controversial figure in American Orthodoxy. Giving him a fair hearing is beyond my capability. I will instead refer anyone interested to his entry on the Orthodox Wiki which seems fair and informative.]

In the end Sungaila dismissed any clear connection to Gnosticism. Rather he proposed that Rose’s real problem was that he was far too literal. The various fathers that he studied and quoted were fond of what Sungaila calls allegorical language. (I would be more inclined to call it poetic imagination than allegory.)

According to Sungaila, Rose was so literal that he came away from the fathers believing they taught a literal spatial heaven and hell wherein the heaven is literally up there and hell down there. He believed that demons are somehow corporeal and literally try to grab on to dead people as they ascend to heaven and drag them down to hell. If that’s true, that’s really weird.

But as all you poets out there know, that’s the problem with strict literalism: it almost always ends up being really weird.

Language is terribly limiting. Our perceptions can soar, but when we try to put it into words, our perceptions are circumscribed by the words. The poetic imagination, on the other hand, can free language to soar as far as our perceptions.

Conversely, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, can “speak” directly to our nous (that untranslatable Greek word that typically gets translated as “mind” in English, but is better understood as our innermost being) in ways that our nous can understand perfectly but our intellect simply cannot grasp. This means that on the surface level of facts and discourse, truth can be a bit slippery because the actual truth of the matter is expressed “thus” by me and “so” by you. In such a circumscribed environment, literalism is a dangerous business.

In this context I will remind you again that there are only three people given the title “theologian” in the Orthodox Church and they’re all poets or have a strongly poetic sense: John the Theologian (John the Apostle, author of the 4th Gospel), Gregory the Theologian (Gregory Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian fathers), and Symeon the New Theologian (a Byzantine monk). Poetry is the only language that can come close to express the mystical reality of our experience of God. Literalism? Not so much.