A Meditation on the Mystery of Time

I open our New Year’s Eve late night Mass (11:15 PM) with the observation that we begin Mass in one year and end in the next. New Year’s Eve highlights the mysterious passage between years. In a way I suppose it is no more mysterious than the passage from Thursday to Friday or from 10:00 AM to 10:01 AM.

In one sense, nothing could be simpler than time. I might ask you, “What time is it?” You might reply, “It’s 1:15.” Simple! But time has mysteries about it.

What is time? Some say it’s merely a measure of change, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense because change doesn’t occur at a steady pace at all.

Some say it’s just another way of measuring distance in the space-time continuum. Time and distance are certainly related. To look out at the stars at night is to look into the past; it has taken millions of years for the light from some stars to reach us over vast distances through the vacuum of space. Even the light from our sun is eight minutes old before it reaches us.

But there’s more to time than distance, and we all know it. There are several different words for time in Greek. Chronos refers to clock time. Kairos encompasses a complex notion of time experienced subjectively. Sometimes ten minutes can seem like an hour, but there are other times when an hour can pass by swiftly. Further, things can seem fitting at certain times but not at others. Kairos thus expresses an elastic notion of time. Finally, there is aeon (eternity, or the fullness of time). I’ll comment more on aeon below.

Every year at this point I ponder the mystery of time, probably because time is so much on our minds. As I do so, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is until we’re asked to define it in some meaningful way. It reminds me of what St. Augustine once said about another mystery: the Trinity. If someone asks me to define time, I am tempted quote St. Augustine: “If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.” So time, while plain and simple on one level, is mysterious on other levels.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider these examples:

The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity

We like to think that time is unvarying, that 10 minutes here is the same as 10 minutes there. But science has largely disproved that. For example, as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Further, strong gravitational forces also slow down time. On a very large planet with strong gravitational forces I would age less rapidly than on a smaller planet. Granted, it would take a huge difference in speed or gravity to be able to observe much of a difference, but the law of relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way, it is almost like a comparing a large, lumbering elephant to a tiny mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) its speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were operating in a different time frame.

The Mystery of Life Spans

Why are the life spans of different species so different? Like me, my cat Daniel is a mammal; our physiology is quite similar in most respects. Yet his clock is likely to expire after about 15 years while mine is more likely to make it closer to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years. Many types of parrots can live to be over 100, while other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but carp can live up to 100 years. We all seem to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar animals. We seem to carry the mystery of time within us. I have never heard a satisfying explanation of the wide variability in life spans.

The Mystery of our “Inner Clock”

Most of our demarcations of time are clearly rooted in the celestial cycle. A day is the cycle of the earth rotating on its axis. A year is the cycle of the earth orbiting the sun. A month (a least originally) is rooted in the cycle of the moon orbiting the earth (“month” is just a mispronunciation of “moonth”). Seasons result from the earth’s trajectory around the sun as well as the tilt of the earth’s rotational axis in relation to the plan of its orbit. More mysterious is the 7-day cycle we call the “week.” Where does it come from? Human beings in most cultures seem to have a need to “reset the clock” every seven days. The Genesis account of creation in seven days, surely influenced the Judeo-Christian culture, but other cultures show a similar tendency toward seven days. Where does the seven-day week come from? It’s mysterious. As humans, we seem have some inner clock that needs resetting at about that frequency.

The Mystery of Eternity

Finally, there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word simply to mean a very long time. But that is not what is meant by the word. When the Greeks coined the word eternity (aeon) they meant by it “the fullness of time.” Eternity is the past, present, and future all being experienced at once. I cannot tell you what this is like, but I can illustrate it. Look at the graphic of the clock at the upper right. It shows 2:00 (let’s assume in the afternoon). That means that 10:00 AM is in the past while 6:00 PM is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock. At that spot, 10:00 AM, 2:00 PM, and 6:00 PM are all the same; they are equally present to the center. We live our life in serial time, on the outer edge of the clock. But God does not; He lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, the past and the future are the same as the present. God is not “waiting” for things to happen. All things just are. God is not waiting and wondering whether you or I will get to Heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, thousands of years ago is just as present as is thousands of years from now.

Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day (2 Peter 3:8).

Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be (Ps 139, 15).

For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night (Ps 90:4).

And then there is God’s name: “I AM.” In this name there is no past and no future, just an eternal now (the present tense). Jesus declared to the crowds, Before Abraham ever was, I AM (John 8:58). This is the most awesome mystery of time: the fullness of time, eternity.

Ponder God’s glory and the mystery of time!

Here’s a remarkable video on the mystery of time:

An Image of Dying and Rising in a Touching Animation

One of the greatest paradoxes told to us in the Scriptures is that if we would save our life, we must lose it in Christ (Luke 9:24). That is, we must die to this world in order to inherit eternal life. “Eternal” does not simply refer to the length of the afterlife, but to its fullness as well. To inherit eternal life is to become fully alive.

This idea that we must die to ourselves to go up to something higher is evident throughout nature. Minerals and other aspects of the soil are taken up into plants by being leached out of the soil, but in so doing they “come to life” in the plant and are no longer simply inert minerals. Plants must die and be taken up into the animal that eats them, but in so doing they become part of sentient life. Animals must die and be taken up into the human person that eats them, but in so doing they go up higher, joined to the life of a person with a soul, one who ponders meaning, studies the stars, writes poetry, and knows God. Man, too, must die to himself, die to this world, in order to be swept up in the life of the Trinity in the glory of Heaven. In every stage, we die to something lower in order that we may go to something higher.

The video above presents a very moving story, one which requires us to suspend some notions of reality. Obviously, robots do not have consciousness and feelings—but this one does. The robot in this video is sent to the home of an older woman in order to take care of her.

When the robot is first taken out of the box and turned on, he behaves just like a robot, going through his chores mechanically. In his association with the woman, however, he begins to go up higher. Dying to himself and serving this woman puts him in association with her. This relationship begins to give him almost human traits: love and loyalty, joy and sorrow, and even desire. We see the first change in him as he admires a sunset, in imitation of his mistress. The lesson here is that we learn what it means to be more fully human from one another and by gazing into the light of God’s glory.

It seems that the circus is coming to town. And oh, how the robot wants to go! The tickets are purchased and the anticipation builds.

One thing we notice in the story, though, is that this robot lives on battery power. No matter how good battery power is, it can only last for so long.

The day of the circus arrives, but alas, his mistress dies that very day. Misunderstanding the higher life he has been serving, the robot tries to revive her by putting batteries in her pockets. Obviously, no amount of battery power can help, for the power of this world is powerless over death. Upon her death, the robot sits gazing at the sunset, remembering a time when he first began to experience life.

We who view the story know that the robot cannot last forever because his batteries, which symbolizes the things of this world, are bound to fail. Sure enough, five days later, his lights go out, and his eyes close in a kind of death.

In dying, however, we are born to eternal life. Suddenly the robot’s eyes open and he is in a world brighter than he has ever known; and there she is, his mistress, the one he served. She has come to walk with him to the circus, a circus far more glorious than any he could ever have imagined. In dying to his battery life, he has gone to real and eternal life.

But Father, but Father, robots don’t have life! I know, it’s just a story; but like many stories, it’s really about you and me. For now, we are like servants, depending on battery life. We learn what it means to be more fully human from one another and by gazing at the light of God’s glory. To become fully alive, however, requires that one day our battery finally die. Then, a new and more glorious life awaits us, if we faithfully serve in the house of mother Church, in the house of God’s Kingdom. In losing our life for the Lord and His kingdom, we gain it back more richly. From battery life to real life.

Of Dolphins and Man: The Vast Difference between Animals and Humans

dolphin-203875_640Those of you who read my posts regularly know that I have often expressed great fascination with and affection for the pets I have had over the years. I am in awe of the whole of the created order, which proclaims God’s glory.

However, there are important distinctions between the human person and the created order that sometimes get lost in modern movements such as environmentalism, animal rights, and even in the realms of philosophy and science.

Consider a recent article on CNN.com that reported on the quest to communicate with dolphins, a species that the article calls “the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet.”

In his paper, Ryabov calls for humans to create a device by which human beings can communicate with dolphins. “Humans must take the first step to establish relationships with the first intelligent inhabitants of the planet Earth by creating devices capable of overcoming the barriers that stand in the way of … communications between dolphins and people,” he said. … “As this language exhibits all the design features present in the human spoken language, this indicates a high level of intelligence and consciousness in dolphins,” he said in the paper, which was published in the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics last month. “Their language can be ostensibly considered a high developed spoken language.”
(The full article can be read here: Dolphins may have a spoken language, new research suggests)

Such lazy wording in a published scientific paper is disturbing on its face. Though admitting we do not really know what the dolphins are saying, the scientist concludes that their language exhibits all the “design features” in human spoken language. Really? How does he know that? For example, human language can exhibit the use of the future perfect tense (e.g., “By tomorrow I will have finished.”). Can the scientist show me that dolphins use such a tense? Do they use gerunds? How do they conjugate verbs? Can he show me how dolphins make use of higher rhetorical concepts such as prolepsis?

The scientist goes on to say, “Their language can be ostensibly considered a high developed spoken language.” The use of the word “ostensibly” buys him a lot of room for later denials, but still, such a statement seems incredibly rash.

I would argue that such conclusions are stunningly out of proportion to the evidence. One can only hope that this is a case of a journalist reporting too simplistically, rather than that the scientist himself is drawing such conclusions with so little basis.

This CNN report showcases many of troubles common today in discourse about human beings and animals. There seems to be a fundamental assumption that there is little difference between humans and animals, particularly the higher primates. Dolphins, too, seem to have been given a rather high place in the animal kingdom hierarchy.

But I would argue that the distance between man and even the highest forms of animal life is by no means small; it is a distance so large as to indicate a difference not merely in degree but in kind. This is demonstrable from straightforward observation. A thing can be known by its effects. Apple trees do not bear oranges nor do they bring forth baby pandas. As we look at animal kingdom, even its highest members, some questions begin to emerge. If, as many assume today, animals are really “just like us,” where are the effects?

Where are their great cities? Where are their libraries, universities, and hospitals? Where are their bicameral legislatures, in which they debate justice, pass laws, and organize for the common good? Where are their courts, in which they hold one other accountable, punish crime, and administer justice? Where are their great cathedrals, in which they worship God and prepare for death and the next world? Where are their works of art? Where are their museums, in which they honor their history and reflect on their progress? For that matter, where is their progress at all? How have they made technological advances or better organized their lives? Do they show any progress from one hundred or even a thousand years ago? Have they progressed from the use of simple tools to more advanced ones? Have they gone from rudimentary living to more complex behaviors and accomplishments? Does their knowledge and technology build over time? Have they learned anything new at all? Have they been to the moon and back? Have they probed the stars?

I could go on with these questions for pages, but the point is to illustrate that the differences between the human person and even the highest members of the animal kingdom are so vast as to indicate a fundamental difference.

Physically, I am not so different from my cat. Like me, she is a mammal; we share most of the same basic physical functions. She can feel pain, experience hunger, and sense danger. I have some physical abilities that are better than hers: opposable thumbs and a larger brain, for example. But she outpaces me in other areas: more acute senses of hearing and smell, for example.

But most of the similarities end with the physical level. My cat has no higher life. She does not ponder justice and other metaphysical concepts. She does not ask why or join me on protest marches. She does not appreciate great music or read literature. I could put on music that brings me to tears while she just lies there unmoved.

All the observations I have made and questions I have asked are indicative of a fundamental difference between man and even the highest of animals. The difference comes from capacities that humans have and animals do not.

In philosophy and theology, we attribute these vast differences to the fact that human beings have a rational soul. Humans can have command of metaphysical concepts such as justice, mercy, beauty, and truth. We can ask questions like why and how. These lead us to explore, to experiment, to progress, to debate, and to insist on what is best. Our longing for truth, goodness, and beauty draw us to something beyond ourselves and beyond simply what is. We have developed complex interrelationships that we call civilization.

The difference between humans and animals is fundamental, not merely accidental. We are different because of a capacity within us we call our rational nature.

What you have just read is more of a pastoral reflection than a philosophical treatise. One may quibble with a particular point, but I contend that the overall picture indicates a vast difference between man and animal, a difference not merely in degree but in kind.

This essay is meant to be a response to the sad situation in the world today, wherein many have reduced the human person to little more than a smart ape or an advanced animal. We are much more than that. We have rational souls that can soar above the merely physical. As one of the remedies for the darkness of our times, we must recover a sense of our unique dignity.

Of Mice and Men – Pondering the Strange Loss of Faith in an Age of Science

faith and scienceOne of the more perplexing claims of the growing number of agnostics and atheists among us is that there is no evidence of an intelligent creator of the universe. But clearly the created universe manifests intelligibility and order from the farthest reaches of outer space down to our tiny planet and further down into the “inner space” of cells, atoms, and molecules. Science affirms the existence of a creator by uncovering the inner order and intelligibility of created things. But strangely, the age of science seems to be fostering a denial of that evidence.

Indeed, creation is a veritable symphony of billions of notes working together in an extraordinary harmony that seems to shout, “I was composed and carefully thought out; my master composer is also the great conductor of my symphony, so carefully laid out!”

That the created world is intelligible is the very basis of the sciences. The world manifests meaning that we can discover and it moves along in predictable ways; it does not randomly change from one thing to the next from one moment to the next. Because there is order and intelligibility, a scientist can predict, propose, and test theories, and replicate results. Without order and intelligibility there could be no scientific method.

And yet many of the scientists who use this scientific method deny the very intelligence who provides the intelligibility that their science presumes. For if the created world is intelligible, then clearly an intelligence imposed this intelligibility upon it. That the created world manifests order demonstrates that someone so ordered it.

If all of this intricate order happened just by accident at one moment in time, it would then require something to maintain that order and keep it from breaking down the very next instant into something completely different. And yet this does not happen. Reality does not suddenly and randomly mutate into something else. It follows predictable laws; changes are orderly and exhibit continuity with what went before. Order is present not just at one point in time, but is sustained over time and becomes demonstrably more organized as complex life forms develop. Clearly, creation tends toward a certain end in an orderly and progressive way.

That there is order and intelligibility to the created world is demonstrably true and to deny this fact would seem to be the reaction of a madman. The universe shouts out, “I was planned and carefully executed; I have been intricately designed by an intelligent cause moving me in an intelligible direction!”

I would understand if physical scientists were to say that they are not equipped to opine on who or what this intelligence is. Indeed, the physical sciences are not equipped to measure the metaphysical. For so many scientists to claim the ability to deny that there is an intelligence (whom we believers call God) is for them to act outside of their field, unreasonably so.

The claim that there is no God is not a scientific claim; it is a philosophical one. Those who maintain that there is only the physical and not the metaphysical are actually making a metaphysical claim. They refute their own assertion in the very act of declaring it! The claim that physical science wholly explains all of reality is not one that can be demonstrated scientifically. The claim is proven false the very moment it is declared.

Many will say that there is no evidence of God’s existence because they cannot see it under a microscope or through a telescope. But of course God is not a physical being; He does not tip our scales. He cannot be physically measured any more than can justice, mercy, beauty, or any other metaphysical concept. None of these can be seen with the tools of physical science—but they are no less real.

Yes, there is a great deal of evidence of a creator. The entire created world is steeped in intelligibility and order. There is a magnificent interplay between material, efficient, formal, and final causality. By its intelligibility, the created world shouts of the intelligence that made it so. By its order, it sings of the one who so ordered it.

Existence itself provides the answer to the questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there anything at all?” The only reasonable answer that can come back from the existing cosmos is this: “I was caused!” Something cannot cause itself any more than you and I can cause ourselves. We, and the entire cosmos, were caused by someone other than ourselves and outside of ourselves. The cosmos says, “Someone outside of me caused me. That is why I exist. That is why anything exists at all.”

We moderns have become very obtuse and inwardly focused. If anything, we should be more convinced than ever that God exists, as our sciences have revealed such incredible complexity and intricate order in every layer and level of creation. We should be singing of the incredible wisdom of the creator who has so perfectly ordered every level of his creation. And yet, sadly, just the opposite seems to be happening—agnosticism and atheism are growing.

Far too many scientists, who should know better (for there would not be science at all without the intelligibility built into creation), make unfounded denials of God, a pronouncement that is clearly outside their field of expertise. And because so many of us idolize the sciences, we give great weight to the claims of scientists, even when those claims are nonscientific.

Contemplating this tragic turn of events brings to mind a little parable told by Venerable Fulton Sheen many decades ago:

Those who refuse to unify the cosmos in terms of Pure Intelligence but content themselves with secondary causes may be likened to an all-wise mouse living in a grand piano who … explained the music by the play of hammers on the strings, the action of which could be seen in his own narrow little world. Scientists catch the tune, but miss the player (Old Errors and New Labels, Fulton J. Sheen 1931, p. 17).

Yes, we have become mousy in our thinking. We prefer to live inside the piano and explain the music of the spheres only internally, never thinking of the great artist outside, who gives and causes the magnificent, understandable, beautiful, and intricate melody we hear.

Sadly, the great debate over the existence of God seems only to grow, even as the evidence of intelligibility, order, and design increases. It is a great debate of mice and men.

Are you a mouse or are you a man?

In this video, hear the song of the cosmos!

Rare Jewel: Earth-like Planets May Be Very Rare

2.28blogI have written a good bit over the years about what is known as the “Rare Earth” Hypothesis. A recent blog on discovermagazine.com ponders how high the odds are against the existence of another Earth-like planet. More on that in a moment. But first let’s review some of the basics of the Rare Earth Hypothesis.

While most people, including most scientists, believe that there may be billions of inhabitable planets out there a capable of sustaining complex life, the Rare Earth Hypothesis suggests that such a large number is overstated.

This is because there are not just a few things that come together to support life here on Earth, there are many. Here are some:

  1. Earth is at just the right distance from the Sun so that water is warm enough to melt, but not so hot as to boil and steam away into space. Water is also able, in this habitable zone (the so-called “Goldilocks” region), to both evaporate and condense at lower levels in the atmosphere, thus permitting a more even distribution of water, and the cycle of water over dry land known as precipitation.
  2. For suns to spawn Earth-like planets they must have sufficient “metallicity,” which is necessary for the formation of terrestrials rather than gaseous planets.
  3. Earth is in a “habitable zone” within the galaxy as well. Closer to the center of galaxies, radiation and the presence of wandering planetoids make life there unlikely.
  4. Earth exists in a disk-shaped spiral galaxy (the Milky Way) rather than in an elliptical (spheroid) galaxy. Spiral galaxies are thought to be the only type capable of supporting life.
  5. Earth’s orbit around the sun is an almost perfect circle rather than the more common “eccentric” (elongated) ellipse. Steep elliptical orbits take a planet relatively close to and then relatively far from the sun, with great consequences for warmth and light. Earth’s stable, nearly circular orbit around the sun keeps our distance from it relatively constant, and hence the amount heat and light does not vary tremendously.
  6. Two nearby “gas giants” (Jupiter and Saturn) attract and catch many wandering asteroids and comets and generally keep them from hitting Earth. The asteroid belts also keep a lot of flying rock in a stable orbit and away from us.
  7. Our molten core creates a magnetic field that holds the Van Allen radiation belts in place. These belts protect Earth from the most harmful rays of the sun.
  8. Earth’s volcanism plays a role in generating our atmosphere and in cycling rich minerals widely.
  9. Our sun is just the right kind of star, putting out a fairly steady amount of energy. Other types of stars are more variable in their output and this variance can utterly destroy life or cause it to be unsustainable due to the extremes caused.
  10. Earth’s fairly rapid rotation reduces the daily variation in temperature. It also makes photosynthesis viable because there is enough sunlight all over the planet.
  11. Earth’s axis is tilted just enough relative to its orbital plane to allow seasonal variations that help complex life but not so tilted as to make those variations too extreme.
  12. Our moon also has a good effect by causing tides that are just strong enough to permit tidal zones (a great breeding ground for diverse life) but not so severe as to destroy life by extreme tides.

There are many more items on the list (see the first video below), but let these suffice.  The conditions that come together on this planet such that it is capable of sustaining complex life are complicated, remarkable, and some argue rare in the universe. The ability to support life here is the balance of many fascinating things. We cannot but be amazed at the complexity of life and the intricacies it takes in order for it to flourish here. It would appear that for complex life to be sustained, many factors must come together in just the right way. The sheer number of these factors sharply decreases the number of possible Earth-like planets, despite the many billions of galaxies and stars.

All this background information leads us back to the recent blog at discovermagazine.com: Earth-is-a-1-in-700 quintillion kind of place. (700 quintillion is 7 followed by 20 zeros). The blog references a study by Astrophysicist Erik Zackrisson from Uppsala University in Sweden.

Here are some excerpts:

Zackrisson’s work suggests an alternative to the commonly held assumption that planets similar to Earth must exist, based on the sheer number of planets out there …. Current estimates hold that there are some 100 billion galaxies in the universe containing about 10^18 stars, or a billion trillion …. Probability seems to dictate that Earth-twins are out there somewhere.

But according to Zackrisson … Earth’s existence presents a mild statistical anomaly in the multiplicity of planets …. Most of the worlds predicted … orbit stars with different compositions—an important factor in determining a planet’s characteristics. His research indicates that, from a purely statistical standpoint, Earth perhaps shouldn’t exist …. Researchers are confident in the broader implications of their model: Earth is more than your garden-variety planet.

I write on this topic more in wonder and awe than anything else. There is no necessary requirement of our faith that we must believe ourselves alone in the whole universe. God can, and even might have, created intelligent beings on other planets, beings with whom He interacts and whom He loves.

But neither should we too quickly assume that Earth is not a rare jewel. Statistically, it would seem that there is good evidence that we and Earth are rare jewels. Humble amazement at all that it takes to sustain life on our planet is a proper stance at this stage of the evidence. The more we learn, the more it seems that the convergence of all the factors we enjoy on Earth is rare rather than commonplace. Consider well all that God and nature, sustained by God, have done so that you and I can exist. Be amazed; be very amazed!

What Is the Math of Spiritual Goods and Why Is The World Such a Deadly Place Without It?

In an increasingly materialistic and secular world, a deadly math has set up. It is deadly because it has rejected the spiritual math of God and of spiritual goods.

What is meant by “spiritual math”? It is a math that recalls that spiritual goods, in themselves, do not admit of division and subtraction, but only of multiplication and addition. Rather than diminishing, spiritual goods grow when shared. And this is a critical math never to forget.

This “strange,” spiritual math is announced in the opening moments of the Great Easter Vigil. During the Paschal Proclamation (more widely known as the Exsultet) comes a line that speaks to the reality of the Paschal candle, of a Church now ablaze with hundreds of smaller candles lit from it and held by worshipers:

A fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing its light!

Yes, here is declared the divine economy, the mathematics of spiritual goods. The flame is divided but undimmed. This is a strange sort of division and subtraction; it’s not really division or subtraction at all, for nothing is lost and all is gained! We struggle for words to describe it. We speak of “division,” but really we experience something closer to distribution. And thus something “divided” becomes more, not less of what it is.

A modern analog of this insight is, “Hugs multiply when shared.”

As always, St. Thomas Aquinas expresses well this paradoxical math and the truth of spiritual goods:

Contrary to spiritual goods, material goods divide men because they cannot belong simultaneously and integrally to a number (Summa Theologica, IIIa q. 23 art. 1, ad 3um).

And he states the complementary truth, Spiritual truths can be possessed by many at the same time unlike material goods (Summa Theologica, IIa IIae q. 28 a. 4).

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange comments on this same truth:

Therefore whereas the unbridled search for material goods profoundly divides men, the quest for spiritual goods unites them, and this union is all the more evident as we seek the superior spiritual goods. … When we give away money, we no longer possess it; when, on the contrary, we give God to souls, we do not lose him; rather we possess him the more (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol 2, Tan Publications, p. 141).

Beware a culture that loses the insight of spiritual math and has only material math before it. Indeed, what happens to a culture that becomes almost wholly focused on material goods and at the same time denigrates and marginalizes spiritual goods? Well, using these insights of Fr. Lagrange, divisions increase, fears of diminution increase, and power struggles ensue. There emerges a constant dialectic of scarcity and competition. Fears of “the other” grow; they take shape in things like identity politics, fear of overpopulation, worry about unemployment, etc.

Never mind that people don’t only take from markets and resources; they also add to them by contributing labor and talent and by buying products and services. And even more, a materialistic culture ceases to appreciate the less-material human resources such as ingenuity, creativity, love, generosity, altruism, hope, laughter, faith, confidence, and companionship. These values and virtues are not only important of themselves, but, even though metaphysical, they affect the physical world by enlarging possibilities through discovery and creativity.

But never mind all that. The material world focuses only (and necessarily) on matter, which is a diminishable quantity.

And here is the danger: with no spiritual math to balance the physical math, fears, divisions, and conflicts increase. Yes, because we forget the math of more spiritual goods (where things increase by being shared), there is little to balance our fears and the conflicts and power struggles that come from them.

It is no accident that as atheistic and materialistic philosophies multiplied in the early 20th century, there erupted a level of violence, war, and struggle of unprecedented proportions. Two world wars killed tens of millions, countless other wars and conflicts (mainly rooted in the “Cold War”) claimed millions more, and as many as 200 million were killed at the hands of Mao, Stalin, Pohl Pot, and others. Abortion has killed hundreds of millions more. Repressive population policies in China and elsewhere (through UN-sponsored organizations) have also prevented life through contraception.

So much of this violence has occurred based on the mere math of the physical order, in which there are only diminishable quantities. It is a math that says that there’s not enough for both you and me. Neither is there enough room for both your views and mine, because then my view/group might have to share resources with you/yours. Therefore you must be minimalized, marginalized, and if necessary, encouraged to leave the planet.

The secularists like to state that “more have died in the name of religion than for any other cause.” It is hard to understand how they can maintain this conclusion after reading the history of the bloody 20th century, which accumulated death tolls unimaginable in prior centuries. And these deaths were by and large in the name of materialism, not religion.

To be fair, people have died for religious reasons, and in not insignificant numbers. But it was not because of spiritual goods per se, but rather through their being too tied to material goods. Princes, popes, and rulers too often had property and power tied up in religious realities. And religious truth was also very tied to the social order and the distribution of power.

This is why Jesus warned that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head. As such, He exemplified the danger of linking spiritual goods with temporal ones. In such settings, spiritual math is too easily swallowed up by material math.

As secular materialism spreads, so does its math of diminishing resources, the idea of the zero-sum game. In that sort of a world, you are my competitor, my enemy. When I forget spiritual goods like ingenuity and creativity, which can often overcome looming scarcities; when I discount other spiritual goods you bring to me such as companionship, artistic giftedness, faith, and the power of your prayer; then you are not just a threat to me—you are an unmitigated threat. Physical scales quickly tip in our minds when we forget that spiritual goods are in the balance and that they increase when shared.

But a secular word dismisses spiritual goods and thus ushers in a very dark fear. Welcome, then, to the culture of death: contraception, abortion, infanticide, physician-assisted suicide, punitive population policies, genocide, pogroms, eugenics, ethnic cleansing, and the selective abortion of “undesirable” children (the “wrong” sex or who have possible disabilities). The culture of death emerges in a secular, materialistic world where the only math is diminution.

Yes, death, the strangest therapy of all, becomes an increasingly widespread and supported policy in a material world bereft of the math of spiritual goods. And Dr. Death, a materialist through and through, is speaking to you and your children. He says,

“You are threat to me and mine. You use up what I might need. Meanwhile, you bring little or nothing to the zero-sum material world. You have to go, really. In fact, it’s too bad you ever existed at all. At least join me in making sure that many others never see the light of day.”

Beware the math of the material world, uninfluenced by the God’s math: the math of shared spiritual goods! The math of the material world is dark, dangerous, and deadly.

Thoughts on Science and Faith From an Unexpected Source

Generally, when I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I presume that I will be seeking answers or insights into racial justice, and significant issues of poverty and the social Gospel. Yet recently, I came across some quotes which cast light on the relationship of science and faith, another critical issue in our time. Allow me to share three such quotes and then provide a little commentary of my own.

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.
From The Measure of a Man, 1958

To place this quote in a philosophical framework, Dr. King is here referring here firstly to the fact that the created world, including each of us is contingent. As a contingent being, I do not explain myself. I owe my existence to another, first of all my parents. Something and someone distinct from me, and often out of sight, is the reason for my existence. I neither explain myself, nor do I cause myself to be.

My parents are both deceased now. Thus they are out of sight, and not to be found in this world. Yet they clearly did exist in this world at one time, for I am here.

The whole created world also has this quality. It is clearly here. But it does not explain itself. It is contingent, and could just as well be as not be.

Scientists are able to trace currently existing things back only so far, and then it hits a wall. It can look back approximately 13.7 billion years.  And the further back we go, the current stars and galaxies were but pure and very compressed energy. As we journey all the way back, all of creation was in an extremely hot and dense state of pure energy called singularity. Beyond this we cannot see.

What caused it to suddenly expand? What put it there in the first place? These are questions that lie beyond science and what Dr. King means when he says that everything we see is a shadow cast by what we do not see. And that which we do not see, beyond matter and space and time, we call God.

Dr. King’s quote also refers to something that philosophy calls efficient causality, and also, to some extent, formal causality. There are basically four kinds of causality distinguished in classical philosophy :

  1. Material Causality – Material causality refers to the physical matter, to the raw materials that cause something to be, for example the bronze of a statue.
  2. Formal Causality – Speaks to what a thing is intended to do or be based on what the intent of the maker or creator is in making it the way it is.  For example a bronze statue has its form based on what it is meant to convey, perhaps a the likeness of a person. Hence the intent of an artisan to convey a likeness, say of Dr. Martin Luther King, will give rise, (or cause) the statue’s form in terms of shape, design, and other more specific features so that the final shape actually resembles Dr. King.
  3. Efficient Causality – Refers to the external entity from which the thing or act first proceeds. That is, the primary source of the thing or action. In the case of a bronze Statue, the efficient cause is the artisan, the sculptor
  4. Final Causality – speaks to that for the sake of which a thing is done, the end reason, the purpose, or end, that something is supposed to serve. In the example of our statue, the final cause may be beauty itself, or to inculcate a memory of the person the statue recalls.

Perhaps you can see that the physical sciences are best at dealing with material causality but not well equipped at all to answer questions related to intent (formal cause), ultimate origins (efficient cause) and ultimate ends or purposes (final cause). Science is good at answering questions like “what” and “how (from a material point of view),” but poor at answering the question “why” and dealing with the issues of intent and the ultimate end of things.

Dr. King’s quote here discloses the limits of science; It can investigate the shadows, but it cannot see beyond to the one who casts the shadows.

Despite these noted limits to material sciences, there are many in our time who refuse to admit there is anything beyond what the physical sciences can measure. To use Dr. King’s analogy, while investigating the shadows, they deny, in effect, that there is anything casting the shadow. They deny there is a world beyond the material world that the physical sciences measures.

Let me be clear that not all scientists, or even most, do this, but those who do so are often loud and public. I will also grant that the physical sciences, as disciplines, must limit their study and conclusions to the physical world. But there is an error called “scientism” which claims there is no real or valid knowledge beyond what the empirical and physical sciences can prove. This is a horribly reductionist view, but it is gaining popularity today.

But let us also be clear, the universe does not explain itself. It’s existence is contingent and depends on someone or something outside itself to explain its exists. If science can investigate the “shadows” then something must be casting the shadows. That something (Someone) we call, God.

Where science cannot go, theology, faith and philosophy can, pondering the questions of what lies beyond the physical. We call this the metaphysical (meta=beyond), and it examines and ponders questions of design and intent, purpose, some of the qualities of the designer, ethical responses etc., all based on the premise that creation is intelligible and that intelligibility bespeaks intelligence. We strive to learn of the intelligent Creator who lies beyond, based on what he has created.

As such faith and theology (and to some extent philosophy) do not compete with science, they compliment it. And this leads us to Dr. King’s second quote:

Science investigates religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power, religion gives man wisdom which is control. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism, and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.” – Strength to Love

Yes, both disciplines are needed. Without science, faith can devolve away from reality into mere abstractions, generalities and ideas. But God has always insisted that we live in the very physical world he has created. We ignore physical reality to our peril. The Catholic Faith, in particular, emphasizes the incarnation, that the Word became flesh. Further we reverence creation and make extensive use of it in our worship and we speak of the “book of creation,” thereby indicating that we see creation as a revelation from God. If we can learn of this created world, we can discover more of God who created it. Hence, true faith values science an the insights it provides. And since the truth is ultimately one, true faith should not fear true science.

But science needs faith too, for science runs the risk of idolizing itself. To think that matter is all there is, is a serious and reductionist error. Even before debates of an existing God, science must admit that justice cannot be found under a microscope or weighed in a balance. Love does not tip physical scales. Mercy is not found on the table of elements. Longing cannot be measured by an electric meter; neither can loyalty, bravery, selflessness.  Though not physical, these things are very real. And even if science can claim to find a certain area of the brain which lights up when these realities are considered, science cannot explain the origin of these non-material concepts and realities or where they come from in a purely material world. There is simply more to life than matter.

Dr. King also warns of the moral nihilism that can result if science, or politics refuses to admit the existence of a higher authority beyond and above itself. And this leads to the third quote:

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. – Strength to Love 1963

Yes, science and technology are wonderful things. But if they are a closed system, unanswerable to anything higher or beyond, the “possible” becomes its own justification. Science without ethics or morals, without a higher end to which it is subject, can too easily devolve into devilish destruction. That something is possible, does not make it right or proper. But our science can fuel our pride. And while pride is not a scientific error itself, science unchecked by the notion that we are accountable to justice, and ultimately to God himself, can lead to some very dark places. The partial control that science supplies is no control at all if we cannot control our very selves.

Just a few thoughts on Science and faith based on some Quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo Credit: Creative Photography Magazine

The Mystery of Time

Time, what could be more clear? What time is it? 10:00 pm! Next question. We think at times that nothing could be simpler than time. But time has mysteries about it.

Every New Year I ponder the mystery of time, I guess because time is so much on our mind. And as I ponder time, I am mindful that most of us think we know what time is, until we are actually asked to define it in some meaningful way. Something makes me think of what St Augustine once said about another mystery (the Trinity). And thus if someone asks me to define time I am tempted to say with Augustine: If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know. So time, while plain at one level is mysterious at other levels.

I cannot list all such mysteries, but consider a few puzzlements about time.

  1. The Mystery of Time’s Elasticity – We like to think that time is unvarying. 10 minutes here, is the same as 10 minutes there. But science has already disproved that. For example, as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Further, strong gravitational forces also slows down time. On a very large planet with stronger gravitational forces I would age less rapidly than on a smaller planet. Granted, it would take a huge difference in speed or gravity to be able to observe a big difference, but the Law of Relativity does demonstrate that time does not pass equally everywhere. In a way it is almost symbolized by a large, lumbering elephant compared to a tiny little mouse. As the mouse scurries across the floor (pursued by my cat!) the speed is amazing, almost as if the mouse were in a different time frame.
  2. The Mystery of Lifespans – And speaking of animals, why are life spans so different? My cat Daniel is, like me a mammal. He has heart and lungs, very similar physiology in most respects. Yet his clock is set to 15 years, my clock is set to 80 years. Certain turtles can live up to 150 years, Many types of parrots can live to be over 100. Other birds live only 10 to 15 years. Most fish live only a few years, but Carp (a fish) live up to 100 years. And so on. We all see to have a clock, a designated life span. But that life span seems quite variable even among very similar species. We seem to carry the mystery of time in us. I have never heard a satisfying answer to the wide variability of life spans.
  3. The Mystery of Eternity – Lastly there is the mystery of what we call “eternity.” Most people misunderstand the word eternity simply to mean a long, long, time. But that is not what is meant by the word. When the Greeks coined the word eternity, (Aeon) they meant by it “the fullness of time.” That is to say, Eternity is the past, present and future all being experienced at once. I cannot tell you what this is like, but I can illustrate it. Look at the clock to the upper right. The time is 1:15 in the afternoon. That means that 10:00 AM is in the past and 6:00 pm is in the future. But consider the dot at the center of the clock and see that at that spot 10 AM, 1:15 PM, and 6 PM are all the same, they are equally present to the center. We live our life in serial time, on the outer edge of the clock. But God does not. God lives in eternity. God lives in the fullness of time. For God, past, and future are the same as the present. God is not “waiting” for things to happen. All things just are. God is not waiting and wondering if you or I will get to heaven. He is not watching history unfold like a movie. In eternity, 10,000 years ago is just as present as 10,000 years from now. Scripture hints at God’s eternity in numerous passages. For example, But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. (2 Peter 3:8). Psalm 139 says, Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be. (Ps 139, 15). Psalm 90 says, For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. (Ps 90:4). And then there is simply the God’s name: “I AM” In this Name, there is no past, no future, just an eternal now, the present tense. Jesus declared to the crowds, “Before Abraham ever was, I AM.” (John 8:58). So here is the most awesome mystery of time, the fullness of time, eternity.

Ponder God’s glory and the mystery of time!

Here’s a remarkable video on the mystery of time.