"That which does no earthly good cannot be heavenly minded." R. Rivera

Saturday, April 30, 2011

View From Other Worlds. Part 2: Good is Immortal

Stairway to Heaven, by Jim Warren

By Ruben Rivera©

In my last post I wrote how some 'truths' once held to be beyond all doubt have been relegated to the dustbin of history as the result of some later, unforeseen development, such as Galileo empirically disproving the geocentric view of the universe.

The methods and discoveries of modern science challenged accepted notions of the world and the purpose and destiny of humans like nothing previously had done.

Ironically, some saw science as a sort of new messiah: a modernized salvation via faith in human reason, scientifically understanding and applying natural laws to create another, better 'New Jerusalem' than the one promised in the Apocalypse. It would be a utopian civilization filled not with flying angels and people in infinite worship, but flying machines and people on infinite vacation.

Others, however, speculated that natural law, science and reason were a poor Trinity upon which to bank all our human questions, needs and hopes. Indeed with each successive war -- war being the gravest necessity, and necessity being the mother of invention -- human reason and science have continually widened the circle of destruction and loss of life. Until since the mid-twentieth century a single war using Weapons of Mass Destruction can, with the utmost clinical efficiency, create not utopia but dystopia, not New Jerusalems, but old hells.

Science fiction (SF) arose as a 'literary' means to speculate on the possible futures that discoveries and developments in science, technology and modernizing societies might create.

Some SF writers -- those with optimism in human reason and scientific progress -- speculated on possible future utopias. A classical example of this is Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1624), which depicts the mythical island that glorifies empirical scientific method toward the achievement of a modern secular state where humans quest not to understand God, but what they can make of themselves -- all goals in keeping with 'the father of empiricism' himself.(1)

Other SF writers -- who like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed that life outside the social contract was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", or who with Calvinistic pessimism of human nature -- speculated that not all the scientific advancements in the world would by themselves mean one inch of advancement in the moral goodness and spiritual maturity of humanity and society. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) took a satirical swipe at the popular optimistic utopian novels coming from SF pioneers like H. G. Wells, as well as expressed fears that American values and customs would spread around the world.

I recently came upon a short three-part dystopian story called Twilight (1991) which was nominated for an Eisner Award, the highest award given in the American comic book or graphic story genre. It's not The Watchmen in terms of story-telling quality, but it does depict a futuristic cautionary tale in which humans have achieved immortality.

Why is the story dystopian, you ask? After all, how many people throughout history have longed to cheat death? How many people today are preoccupied with preserving looks and life? Would not the achievement of immortality be utopia, heaven? Bluntly, no.

Such dystopian fiction asks us to consider that immortality without morality is not heaven but precisely hell. (I think C. S. Lewis once said something like this.) This is because it is the search for the wrong thing and for entirely the wrong reasons.

Just ask someone, anyone, why they would prolong their life (indefinitely?) if they could. Is it to work at becoming a great composer? To write the great American novel? To grow in wisdom and grace? Is it to right a wrong, or to seek a reconciliation that they never quite got around to? Is it to spend their guaranteed lease on life to serve humanity now that the universal worry is ended?

I ask, will reconciliation with others be any more likely given more time? Given more time couldn't things just as likely get worse? Will people come to serve others more than themselves now that the chief competition (survival) is no longer an issue? Will indefinite time turn beasts into beauties? I'm not going to say no, never. But somehow I don't think that Hitler would have become Gandhi if he was just given enough time.

In fact, knowing that we end may be one of the most good-producing inducements of all. We know that, here, we end. We're not around long. And the truncation, the finality brings sobriety, self-critique, putting affairs in order, repentance, reconciliation, goodness, maturity; things we might delay interminably if terrestrial life were interminable, or if actions here are believed to have no consequences in the hereafter.

Life begins with obscurity. Death brings clarity, or should (if I may paraphrase Samuel Johnson).

No, immortality of itself is not a good, nor, of itself, does it make us good. I think this is one of the biggest mistakes that Christians and other religious people can make: the belief that somehow, when they get to heaven, they will love the people they can't stand now. In heaven they will no longer cheat, or gossip, or exclude, or show favoritism. In heaven those they treat as other now, they will treat as dearest family then.

While a theology of grace can be marshaled in support of such views, it is a cheap grace indeed if one is not motivated to seek to become now what they expect to be in heaven.

Immortality has no power to beatify. Interminable existence could just as well produce monsters. The immortal gods of the ancient Greeks were powerful, but a lowly short-lived human could be the moral superior to the best of them. Rather, it is beauty that is immortal. Good that is immortal.

Should we not therefore seek that which is beauty and goodness, and in so doing find immortality?

Ruben Rivera

(1) Stephen A. McKnight, "Francis Bacon’s God," The New Atlantis, Number 10, Fall 2005, pp. 73-100.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The View From Other Worlds. Part 1.

By Ruben Rivera©

Cold hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colors from our sight
Red is gray and yellow white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion

"Nights in White Satin"
Justin Hayward
The Moody Blues
Days of Future Past, 1967

"But we decide which is right, and which is an illusion." How monumentally true. With near flawless consistency that verges on natural law. No culture or race (so called), no matter how technologically and materially primitive or advanced, has ever been or is now exempt from such imperious assurances. Bane or Bliss? I suppose we'll each decide for ourselves. After all, why break the streak now?

When the Scientific Revolution began (17th century) it heralded not just unprecedented advancements in the methods and findings of science and technological invention, but enormous changes in worldview (i.e., the view of the nature and meaning of the world and humans), and that, I would argue, is what was most "revolutionary" about the Scientific Revolution.

Perhaps the most well-known example is the revolution that occurred in astronomy (or rather, because of it). The Renaissance astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543) had posited a heliocentric (sun-centered) cosmos in contrast to the geocentric (earth-centered) one that had ruled in the West since Aristotle and Ptolemy. For Copernicus, a heliocentric system (which he could not definitively prove at the time) was critical to solve a problem he was working on: reforming the calendar which the West had used since Julius Caesar had instituted it back in 45 BC.

The Julian Calendar was a remarkable achievement for the time. It nearly accurately divided the year into 365 days (in 12 month divisions to account for seasonal/agricultural cycles) at a time not just when there were no telescopes, but when the accepted view of the cosmos had the Sun and all the other planets and stars wrongly revolving around the Earth. A mistake was bound to be made; and yet the mistake was so small.

The Julian calendar was off by just 11 minutes per year. Not much. But enough so that by the time of Copernicus, Christians were celebrating Easter Springtime with the agricultural death ethos of winter creeping closer and closer to that hollowed Church day. 11 minutes began to add up. Without correction Christians in the northern hemisphere might one day be celebrating Easter when they should be celebrating Christmas. (I'll not discuss here why the West cared so much that the resurrection of Jesus be consistent with their spring-life cycle, even as it cared so little that the newly conquered natives in the Southern hemisphere were forced both to convert to Christianity, and to celebrate Easter during their winter-death cycle.)

"But we decide which is right, and which is an illusion."

So Copernicus is often celebrated for starting the "Copernican revolution" in astronomy and, as such, a father of modern science. It is true, Copernicus's theory was the basis for calendar reform. Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian calendar (1582) based on Copernicus's more accurate calculations, and it remains the standard calendar to date. But Copernicus never pressed the implications of a sun-centered model upon which his calculations were based. And in fact, his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (1543), was published the same year Copernicus himself departed this world for parts celestial. Smart.

This is why scholars like Eric Rabkin argue that "Copernicus revolutionized practically nothing".(1) If he had he would have gotten into serious trouble with the Christian authorities of Europe. No, the distinction of being a radical revolutionary goes to the Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo (1564-1642).

Galileo proved empirically by telescope observation what theoretical math had all but confirmed: the Sun was at the center of our system and Earth and the other planets revolved around it. And here's why Galileo was revolutionary: he argued for his findings publicly.

The Catholic Inquisition tried Galileo as a heretic, and under threat of being found guilty he recanted and the likely sentence of death was commuted. Instead he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Protestants of course, who were so much into reformation, sided with the beleaguered Galileo, right? Wrong. In his "Table Talks", Martin Luther had rejected Copernicus, and other reformers in Galileo's day continued to oppose heliocentrism. (2)

So it was that an erroneous view of the cosmos -- based on faulty observations of nature and a faulty assumption that wherever the Bible references the natural world it intends to be 100% empirically accurate -- became elevated to the status of life or death dogma.

"But we decide which is right, and which is an illusion."

However, no heresy trial or resistance in the name of religious truth would be enough to stop the real revolution of science -- the challenge to worldview.

The emergence of modern science "threw human understanding into question" (Rabkin). Indeed a whole new fictional literature developed precisely in this context, attempting to respond to the uncertainties that the new scientific "certainties" raised: science fiction (sf).

Sf has done this in many different ways. By optimistic speculation of future utopias made possible by science and technology. By pessimistic fictions depicting apocalypse brought on by human beings who let technology out-pace their morals.

By satires and philosophical fictions that create alien worlds and situations as a way to get readers to consider new ways of looking at the all too familiar in our world. The all too familiar, which, when looked at from the view of other worlds, can turn out to be neither accurate nor familiar nor desirable.

In the next installment I will talk about about ways that sci-fi/fantasy views from other worlds ask us to reconsider "which is right, and which is an illusion" in our world of the all too familiar.

(1) Rabkin, ed., Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology (1983), 11.
(2) Martin Luther, Table Talk; John Calvin, sermon no. 8 on 1st Corinthians, 677, cited in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait by William J. Bouwsma (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 72; John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 93, verse 1, trans., James Anderson (Eerdman's, 1949), Vol. 4, p. 7; Christopher Sharp, "Martin Luther and Geocentrism," http://www.csharp.com/luther.html.
Picture credits in order top to bottom.
--"Avatar", James Cameron, dir. 2009.
--Geocentric model. Royalty free pic.
--Galileo before the Inquisition. Public domain.
--Weird Science Fantasy #11 (EC, 1952).
--Money makes the world go round. Royalty free pic.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Greatest of These is Love

By Ruben Rivera© 2 April 2011

"Jesus was all right. But his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."
John Lennon
I want to thank all of you who contributed your thoughts to my last post "God may have spoken, but our problems are not over."

Among the themes that came through fairly consistently was that the reason religion (Christianity included) has often produced only mediocre results in making the world a better place, is the lack of understanding and consistently living by love.

"Love" of course can mean many things to many people. However, the Christian scriptures (or "New Testament") are very clear about the definition. What is more, the New Testament teaching on love is remarkably plain spoken and consistent. It is not a secret available only to those fortunate in blind luck or illuminating genius. In other words, we can all pretty much "get it". This is crucial for any religion or principle if it wishes to be translatable and living in any context.

Love is practical action, not romanticized idea. It is not conditional. It does not depend on whether I woke up on the right side of the bed today. It does not depend on whether another person is "worth" loving as I judge love, the person, the situation, all three.

Loving includes that person who just ran me off my freeway lane, or the person who treated me like something on the bottom of their shoe while I was in the grocery check out line. This does not mean I agree with that person, or that he/she didn't just hurt me or make me feel angry.

It means that love is greater than and therefore must be able to conquer whatever in the universe is unlovely, or it is not (as centuries of poetry, prose and song have said), I repeat, not the "greatest thing". And if it is not, we would do well to find something else that is greater and can conquer the seemingly limitless expressions of the unlovely.

No, love is it. It's what we've got. Except no substitutes. Radical, other-oriented love. It removes (in Tolle's words) our ego problem. It puts others at the center, so that our personal motives, our life goals and methods of getting there, our politics, our business ventures, our policies, our life-choices are all done with the well-being of others in mind, not just ourselves, not just our family, our denomination, our race, gender, class, profession, political party or even our nation.

Jesus was asked, "What is the greatest commandment?" The answer: "The greatest commandment is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength. And the second command is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. These two commandments sum up and are the foundation of all the [Hebrew] scriptures." (Matthew 22:38-40 )

The Apostle Paul reiterates this when he says: "For everything we know about God's Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself." (Galatians 5:14, The Message translation of the Bible)

In other words, God has spoken. And love is the height and summation of the message.
"My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn't know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can't know him if you don't love." (1 John 4:7-10, The Message)

"Now there abides forever faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:13)

"I still believe that all you need is love. But I don't think just saying it is going to do it."
John Lennon