Monthly Archives: August 2010

Starry Night

Starry Night

What do you see when you look up at the night sky? I am assuming, of course, that you are somewhere that the night sky is not obscured by the artificial lights of civilization.
I was prompted to think about that question the other evening while doing some background reading on the Scientific Revolution. It was during the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries that our understanding of the universe we inhabit and who we are fundamentally changed. It was, to borrow a term coined by Thomas S. Kuhn, a “paradigm shift” in our fundamental assumptions–a revolution!
During the 13th century, the High Middle Ages in Europe, the scholastic theologians managed to reconcile classical humanism and its emphasis on reason with the Bible and its emphasis on revelation. To put it another way, the appearance of conflict between reason and faith or between Athens and Jerusalem was removed. That was the great achievement of Thomas Aquinas to whom the pope gave the task of reconciling Aristotle and the Bible. The result was the so-called Medieval Synthesis.
Everything made sense. God created a universe that was not only orderly, but also meaningful and purposeful. Everything, including and especially human beings, has a reason for being. Everything has its place in the great chain of being (scala naurae) decreed by God. Human beings knew where they fit in the great chain of being. Did the Bible not teach that they were below God but above the angels? Each person in society knew his place, whether peasant, merchant, nobleman or priest. God created peasants to work the fields, merchants to engage in trade, noblemen to govern and the clergy to pray. There was one set of laws that ruled the terrestrial realm and another that ordered the heavens.
When the believer looked up at the night sky before the Scientific Revolution, he beheld something that was at once both awe inspiring and mysterious. “The heavens declare the glory of God” wrote the psalmist, “and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” Viewing the stars on a clear night, he might feel as if he was seeing the lights of God’s Heavenly City. Here below the individual believer was but a pilgrim wondering through the City of Man corrupted by sin, but he need only look up and see in the perfect order of the heavenly realm a glimpse of the pilgrim’s destiny.
The change began with the Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicholaus Copernicus. He felt that the accepted geocentric model of the universe would make more sense mathematically if the sun and earth switched places, that is, if one assumed a heliocentric model. He presented his theory in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs, first published in 1543, as he lay dying. To us moderns, it may seem like a minor change, a mere tweaking of the model of the universe. But, it was shocking at the time and proved to be revolutionary.
Copernicus was followed by Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and finally Sir Isaac Newton. Each one, and many others, used inductive reasoning and mathematics to uncover the hitherto unknown natural laws that governed all of God’s creation. With each step, these early scientists, or natural philosophers as they were then known, were developing a new methodology for discovering truth and a new model of the universe. Slowly at first, and then finalized with Newton’s universal law of gravitation in 1687, the universe took on the appearance of a clock, a universe of cause and effect natural law. The Scientific Revolution was a revolution in physics. Newton’s model of the universe remained unchallenged until the birth of nuclear physics at the turn of the 20th century.
The early scientists were Christians, or at least thinking from within a worldview shaped by Judeo-Christianity. They believed that by discovering the natural laws of the universe, laws by which God ordered his creation, they were merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. At least that is how the Englishman, Francis Bacon, defended the new “scientific” view. A defense was necessary. Since the Medieval Synthesis harmonized Aristotle and the Bible, to challenge Aristotle was to contradict the Bible. And that was a serious matter. Recant or suffer torture and martyrdom was the choice given to Galileo.
The intellectuals of the 18th century Enlightenment were more daring. They were fascinated with the new methodology and the new model of the universe. They were more propagandists than philosophers. They wanted to communicate the new way of thinking and the new model of a cause and effect, natural law universe to the literate population. By what they called “the application of reason,” they wanted to liberate the mind from the shackles of lingering religious mysticism.
The so-called philosophes saw Christianity (and religious thought in general) as an obstacle to clear thinking. Hence they launched a direct assault on what the French philosophe, Voltaire, called “that infamous thing.” They were not atheists. It was reasonable to assume that if there was a universe machine, there must be a machine maker. Hence they became what we call Deists. They accepted God as creator, architect, clock maker, designer, or whatever term one used to describe God, but they did not accept the God of Christianity, the God-Redeemer who entered into his creation as the God-man, Jesus Christ. For them, reality was a cause and effect, natural law universe that did not allow for supernatural causes.
Of course we are all grateful for the great thinkers of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. In one of the earliest science fiction stories, New Atlantis, first published in 1627, Francis Bacon foresaw how the discovery of the natural laws of the universe would lead to a new world where applied science would produce marvelous machines. Many since have seen in Bacon’s mythical “Bensalem” a prophetic vision of the Industrial Revolution. Much was gained with the acceptance of Newton’s clockwork universe, but something rich was also lost.
I remember looking through a homemade telescope at the Moon, when I was about eight or nine years old. I was amazed at what I saw. Could there be life on the Moon? What was it really like? Many low budget science fiction movies were made during the 1950’s. The real possibility of space travel was one of the things, along with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust that came out of World War II. Hollywood capitalized on the speculation about what we might find, when we actually visited the Moon, and perhaps even Mars. The silver screen was filled with fascinating movies about earthlings visiting the Moon and Mars, as well as the earth being visited by creatures from outer space.
Until the first lunar landing, scientists did not know what the surface of the Moon was like. They knew it was not made of cheese, but would a spacecraft attempting to land on its surface disappear in a cloud of lunar dust? What mysteries were left vanished with the Apollo XI mission. On when July 20, 1969, the lunar module Eagle landed on the Moon in an area referred to as the Sea of Tranquility. Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin descended from the lunar module to become the first earthlings to walk on the Moon. Ever since, we look at the Moon and see only a rest area on an interplanetary highway to Mars and beyond.
In his popular book, A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future, Charles Van Doren speaks of the impact of the Scientific Revolution on our understanding of the universe and who we are as residents: “Now, when we look up at the stars on a clear, dark night, we see a splendid vision, but it is not the vision that mankind once saw there. . . . [instead] we inhabit a world that is resolutely material, and therefore in many respects a desert of the spirits.”

Garrison Keillor, Muslims and Illegal Immigrants: Random Thoughts on August 10, 2010

Today is August 11, 2010, the last day of my summer vacation. Tomorrow I begin my thirty-fifth year of teaching. The actual teaching part will not begin until the eighteenth. The days in between will be spent, as usual, with what are called “faculty workshops” consisting of coffee, OJ, and Danish pastries. The bulk of the time is spent listening, or at least appearing to do so, to things of little interest to all but a few.
What I will miss about the end of summer vacation is my usual morning ritual of beginning the day by listening to Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac” online. If you have not listened to this program, either online or on MPR Radio at noon, then you really must give it a go. For five minutes the bard of Lake Wobegon talks about the birthday of writers and poets, or the anniversary of some great novel, poem, or historical event. These little gems of literary trivia are followed by Keillor reading a poem.

This morning, for example, I learned that today is the birthday of Marilyn vos Savant. Born in 1946, she is two years younger than I. She has written several books and writes a column for Parade magazine. What caught my attention however is the fact that she has the highest IQ on record through 1989, the last year that the Guinnes Book of World Records included that achievement among its lists.

Being a slow learning that learned to read while enjoying the fifth grade for the second time, I admire people like Ms vos Savant. Perhaps that is why Dr. Gregory House and Dr. Temperance Brennan are among my favorite television personalities. Marilyn vos Savant once said, “If your head tells you one thing and your heart tells you another, before you do anything, you should first decide whether you have a better head or a better heart.” A good preacher could add a few Bible verses and turn that bit of wisdom into a really great sermon.

Today is also the beginning of the month of Ramadan, the most sacred time in the Islamic calendar. Ramadan commemorates the time when Muhammad is supposed to have gone out into the desert, where he was given the first verses of the Qur’an. Muhammad claimed that Allah gave him a new and final revelation. Hence, the Qur’an has greater authority for Muslims than the Bible.

For those of us who do not know what Ramadan is, or are not yet educated in the basic beliefs and teachings of Islam, it is time we spent less time watching football and reading internet blogs (like this one) and spent some time learning about the worldview of an estimated 1.4 billion of the earth’s population. No longer do we live in isolation. While many of us were sleeping or discussing last week’s big sports event over cans of Bud Light and barbecue Buffalo wings, the USA became a multi-cultural society, religiously and otherwise.

Many Americans and Europeans alike are becoming rather hysterical about the growing number of Muslims among us. The fear appears to be due to acts of terrorism by individuals or groups claiming to be defending the honor of the Prophet Mohammad or combating the spread of American popular culture, which even many Americans acknowledge is grossly immoral.

The paranoia is fueled by politicians who find votes and dollars in promoting the message that America is somehow threatened by our historic support of freedom of religion. However, to paint all Muslims as terrorists is simply wrong, not to mention unbecoming of those who profess to be Christians. One day there may be more mosques than Super Wal-Mart’s in America, but if that should happen, who will be to blame, Muslims or Christians?

Some political pundits warn that the real threat to our way of life comes not from the Middle East, but from south of the border. We are told that thousands of illegal immigrants, mostly Hispanic, cross our borders daily, taking jobs that otherwise would be filled by honest Euro-Americans. It has even been suggested that these illegal immigrants are using a secret weapon against us, one not permitted under the generally accepted rules of illegal immigration. They are using the “baby bomb,” sometimes referred to as “baby drop.”

It is claimed, and I suppose in some cases true, that some pregnant women enter the United States illegally in order that their child be born here and thereby entitled to dual citizenship. I think that if I were in their position, I would seriously think of trying that, myself. After all, a child born poor in America has better prospects for the future than a child born poor south of the border.

Illegal immigration and terrorism are both serious issues for our county. I certainly am not qualified to provide the perfect “fix” for either. Perhaps a “guest worker” program like those in place in Germany and other EU nations would be worth considering as a reasonable response to illegal immigration. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we have become a target for international terrorists. It might have something to do with a new form of economic imperialism driven by modern international corporations, many of which are based in the United States and Western Europe. I will save that thought for a future blog.

Many Christians feel a special burden to pray for Muslims during the month of Ramadan. Of course we should pray all year for Muslims, as well as all of our fellow human beings who remain in bondage to the Enemy. God is no respecter of persons. There are really only two categories of people—those who have accepted God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and those who remain in bondage to the devil. We Christians are to be known for the love we have for one another, the love we have for those who are yet lost, and the love we show the stranger among us.

If I had not listened to Garrison Keillor this morning, I probably would not have thought of either the Muslims or the illegal immigrants. At least, that is, until a more spiritually alert brother or sister mentioned them. Maybe God meant for me to be reminded in that way today? Can God use Garrison Keillor to speak to his children? Is God alive and well in Lake Wobegon? More important, is He alive in my life and your life?

Remembering Hiroshima

I cannot help but take a break from the boredom of everyday life to think one of the most significant events in modern history. On August 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman announced to the nation that the USA had dropped a single atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The decision to drop “the bomb” was Truman’s. He took responsibility for making the decision, and throughout the rest of his life, never indicated that he ever doubted that he made the right decision.

Historians and others have ever since debated whether dropping the atomic bomb was necessary in order to end the war in the Pacific, or at least avoid the immense loss of American lives that surely would have resulted from an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Some argue that it was meant to be a warning to our wartime ally, the Soviet Union.

Some ask why Hiroshima? After all, the city was of no military significance and the residence of numerous refugees from the war. The usual explanation given is that the military wanted a kind of “laboratory experiment.” And then there is the question of why the bombing of Hiroshima was followed only three days later by the dropping of a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

The debate will continue without end. What is not debatable is the horror produced by the bomb, so graphically portrayed by John Hersey’s little book, Hiroshima. Based upon eyewitness accounts, Hersey’s story was first published in the August, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. It filled up the entire issue. No other articles. No advertisements. The issue sold out in just four hours. The story was quickly put in print as a book, and mailed free to all members of The-Book-of-the-Month Club. It has never been out of print since, even in this present era of declining literacy in America.

Less known to Americans is Japanese artist, Keiji Makazawa’s Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen), first published in serial form between 1973 and 1974, and then as an animated film in 1976. It is based on Makazawa’s experience as a survivor of Hiroshima. In cartoon art similar to Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986-1991), Nagazawa provides graphic images of the horrors described in John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Barefoot Gen does for Hiroshima what Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) does for the Holocaust.

Every year since August 6, 2010, the Japanese mark the exact time of day when the bomb fell on Hiroshima with a public observance. This year, for the first time in 65 years, the USA and its wartime allies (the United Kingdom and France) sent representatives. Why did it take so long for the USA, in particular, to join with the Japanese in remembering the tragedy? Did it take America becoming the victim of international terrorism for Americans to feel the suffering of those who experienced nuclear war first hand? Or, was it because we are the only nation to have actually used nuclear weapons, and even in recent years, threatened to use them again?

The atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ranks as one of the greatest war crimes of the twentieth century. Questions remain and ever will. If the war in Europe had continued, would we have used the atom bomb against Germany? Or, was there perhaps a bit of racism involved in the decision to use it against Japan? What is there to fear about international terrorism for those of us who grew up in the shade of the mushroom cloud?
My generation believed that someday the Cold War would become a nuclear holocaust. It was never if, but when? Perhaps one thing positive resulted from the nightmare of Hiroshima. Because the leaders of the super powers during the Cold War knew, really knew, what nuclear weapons could do, they never used them. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when nuclear war came within perhaps an hour of becoming reality, the example of Hiroshima kept the demon at bay.